Indianapolis Police Officer Jeff Stagg wasn’t expecting any fanfare when he would stop to pick up trash and clear away the weeds around a roadside memorial for Shelby Smith – he just didn’t want the young woman, who was killed 22 years ago by a drunk driver, to be forgotten.
On Monday, Stagg met Smith’s mother, who got in touch with him after video of him cleaning up the area drew widespread attention earlier this year.
“It was overwhelming and I was just so grateful because I had no idea that, you know, anyone had had been doing that,” Sherry Smith told CNN. “I just felt like this has to be a special person.”
Stagg has been with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for 34 years and the intersection where Shelby was struck by the drunk driver is right in the middle of his beat, so he’s driven past it several times a day for most of his career.
He told CNN that he wasn’t working on the day of the crash, but drove by a few days later and stopped to talk to two of Shelby’s friends who were putting up the original memorial.
Stagg said he’d kept an eye on the memorial ever since, and noticed a couple of years ago that it was starting to deteriorate.
“I just decided I’m not gonna let Shelby’s death in this intersection be forgotten,” Stagg said. “I just started picking up trash, keeping the grass and weeds from encroaching around the cross and the little angel figurines and rocks they had put there at the base and just tried to keep it as presentable as I could.”
He also bought new plastic flowers to replace the ones that had faded and weathered over the years. Workers at the nearby gas station do what they can to keep the area clean, but Stagg said a lot of litter blows up because it’s such a high-traffic area.
Smith said that she and her family had maintained the memorial for years, but she moved away about 12 years ago and now lives in Texas. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder for loved ones to visit the site.
Stagg said he stops at the memorial about every other day and in August, he told Shelby’s story to a man who shot video of him picking up trash and stopped to thank him.
The passerby posted the video on TikTok, and Stagg’s efforts made the local news.
“I knew I had to meet him because he had to be a very special person, Smith said. “And he is.”
She called Stagg in August to thank him and they made plans to meet at the memorial in October because she was going to be in town.
“She called me about it and I said ‘Mrs. Smith, you’re not going to believe this, but I’m parked next to Shelby’s memorial as we speak,’” Stagg said. “And her voice started to crack and then my voice started to crack and it was an emotional conversation.”
Ahead of the meeting, Stagg worked with another police officer, who’s good at woodworking, to build a new cross for the memorial. The white cross has Shelby Smith’s name on it in bright pink letters.
They packed up the original cross to give to Smith.
“Outside of the white paint fading away and peeling off, the cross itself held together through some pretty nasty Indiana weather,” Stagg said.
Smith gave Stagg a big hug when they met in the gas station parking lot near the memorial. She brought flowers and a picture of Shelby to place at the site.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said in video shot by CNN affiliate WISH.
Smith said she thanked Stagg for his service as a police officer and for his thoughtfulness and generosity.
The officer who arrested the drunk driver was also at the memorial for Smith’s visit. “It was nice to see him. I recognized him right away,” Smith said. “It’s been 22 years, but I recognized him right away.”
Stagg said his daughter was the same age as Shelby and that it was devastating to think of all the things her mom wasn’t able to experience because of the actions of a drunk driver.
Smith said Shelby was 18-years-old and had just graduated high school when she died. She was planning to attend the University of Southern Indiana and wanted to go into education.
“She was just so passionate about school and friends and family,” Smith said.
She had gotten off work at one of her two jobs and was driving to spend the night at a friend’s house when her car was hit by the drunk driver, Smith said.
Smith said she became very active with Mothers Against Drunk Driving after the crash and campaigned for tougher DUI laws in Indiana.
Stagg said its been an honor to care for the memorial and to be able to meet Smith after all these years and that it’s the sort of thing police officers do all the time.
“I believe this strongly that this is part of the job,” Stagg said. “When we can try to do something to make things a little bit better as a result of a tragedy, that’s what we do.”