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Monday, May 2, 2016

Working with a purpose

Friday, January 27, 2012

It's hard not to argue that March 16, 1995 was the worst day of T.J. Smith's life.

That was the evening a drunk driver crossed over the centerline on Fillmore Road, causing a collision that badly injured his mother Karen Miller and killed his 8-year-old sister, Lindsey Miller.

One also has to admit, though, that it may have been the most important day of Smith's life. While coping with the loss of his sister, Smith realized he wanted to go into law enforcement to help prevent a tragedy like his sister's from happening again.

Now a Putnam County Sheriff's deputy, Smith thinks about his about Lindsey whenever he dons his brown uniform.

"Since then, it's been my purpose to get into law enforcement and to prevent that from happening to somebody else. It's been a long road," Smith said.

That started when Smith began working as a jail officer at the Putnam County Jail not long after his high school graduation.

"I worked there several years. Due to money, I had to get some other jobs, but with the sole purpose of trying to come back and get on the road," Smith said.

But he eventually made his way back to the Sheriff's Department, becoming a deputy and graduating from the academy in May 2011.

While a deputy has a lot of duties, Lindsey is never far from his mind.

Even 16 years after losing his sister to a drunk driving accident, Deputy T.J. Smith uses her death as a motivation each day on the job. Eight-year-old Lindsey Miller was killed by a drunk driver on Fillmore Road March 16, 1995. In only eight months on the department in 2011, Smith had 33 DUI arrests. He was also named Deputy of the Year.
"I think about it all the time. It makes you feel good inside when you find out the person's intoxicated and you take them off the street," Smith said. "For one thing, you're saving their life and then possibly somebody else.

"I'll call my family members up and tell them I made another DUI arrest. It may not save anybody but there's a good chance it did."

In his eight months on the force following graduation, Smith was active enough to lead the department in DUI arrests with 33. He also won the 2011 Deputy of the Year award.

"He's just doing his job, above and beyond," Sheriff Steve Fenwick said of the award. "He's motivated because his sister got killed by a drunk driver. If he's motivated, then more power to him. That's what a police officer should do."

Department-wide DUI arrests are up. Fenwick pointed out that the Sheriff's Department made more than 100 DUI arrests in 2011 -- the first time they've reached the mark since the mid-1990s.

"Any DUI you take off the streets is a potential killer in my opinion," Fenwick said.

Beyond being a deputy, though, Smith wants to do more to prevent drunk driving, not simply arrest people for it. Recently, he's been working on a presentation for middle school kids about his sister, the wreck and what he's done with his life since.

"It's something a little extra I can do -- not only arresting people for DUIs, but maybe preventing it from happening again," he said. "It's an age group where they can understand the importance of not drinking and driving. Hopefully it will keep one of them from doing it."

In the presentation, Smith tries to let the kids in a little bit on who his sister was and about the events surrounding the night she passed away.

"My girlfriend would dress Lindsey up in makeup and take her to the basketball games," Smith said. "She'd sit down on the first or second row and basically act like she was a cheerleader. That was her thing, she wanted to grow up and be a cheerleader."

On the night of Lindsey's death, though, Karen had taken her to the circus at the Greencastle Armory.

"My mom and her were laughing, and I think Mom had turned around to give some cotton candy to her when the other driver went left of center and hit them. Mom was airlifted, and I think Lindsey was pronounced dead at the scene," Smith said.

It's a harrowing story, and one that Smith hopes has as profound an effect on the kids who hear it as it did on him and his friends.

"I was one of those kids, probably, that they thought, 'T.J.'s a little hellion. He'll probably end up being in trouble someday.' Things happen and it changes your way of thinking," he said. "I never did drink and drive growing up, and a lot of my friends didn't either because they were affected by it."

Unfortunately, it's a sad story that didn't end the day of Lindsey's funeral. Karen remained in critical condition for months and to this day has never fully recovered, physically or emotionally.

"My mom couldn't even go to the funeral because she was in critical condition," Smith said. "It was really rough on the family because we told her Lindsey had died, but every time she would wake up she'd say, 'Where's Lindsey?' We had to relive that over and over and over again.

"One positive thing is she's pushed me to do what I've done and been really supportive of me," he added.

Someone else who's been supportive of Smith has been Sheriff Fenwick. Besides being his boss now, Fenwick was on the department in 1995 as the investigating officer in the crash, and the following year when Smith interviewed for a jail position.

"Steve had worked my sister's wreck. I didn't even know that until I went and applied at the jail," Smith said. "They had an interview board for jailers back then and he was actually on the board. He came to me after the interview and said, 'You're T.J. Smith, you're Lindsey's brother.' Come to find out, he'd worked the wreck."

In 1996 Fenwick also set the department record with 49 DUI arrests. It's a standard for which Smith is now aiming.

"So my goal this year is to beat his record," Smith said.

Besides the arrests, though, he's focusing on prevention.

"I've caught kids drinking and driving -- I've caught two kids that didn't even have a license yet," he said. "One kid tested .17. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'What are you doing?'"

Smith just hopes to reach some of these kids before they make the wrong choices.

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Way to go T.J. Happy to say I graduated with you and I think you're doing a wonderful job.

-- Posted by lonnieb on Fri, Jan 27, 2012, at 12:34 AM

Touching article. Good luck, Deputy Smith. May God surround you with a hedge of protection.

Praying also for your mothers' recovery.

-- Posted by Dagnabbitt on Sat, Jan 28, 2012, at 6:07 AM

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