As a state trooper, James Sauter had plenty of close calls while patrolling the roads.
"Times he'd been hit, someone had hit or almost hit his car. He wasn't worried about it. That's what they do," said a neighbor, Scott Schaal, a retired police officer.
Sauter liked patrol so much he asked to be taken out of air operations. He had just been reassigned to patrol the tollways when his squad car was hit by a semi on Interstate 294 south of Willow Road shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday. Both vehicles burst into flames and Sauter was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 28.
"He just had the mentality, just a good, good kid," said Schaal, who knew Sauter since he was a boy. "He just loved putting on the uniform every day."
State police officials said the accident was still under investigation, but it appear Sauter was on the shoulder of southbound Interstate 294 when the semi hit him from behind. It was not clear whether Sauter’s emergency lights were on or why he was stopped.
“Our accident reconstruction team is working," Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said at an early morning news conference. "It was a pretty horrific accident. We don’t have all the details yet."
The driver of the semi, a United Van Lines truck, was being questioned by police. He apparently suffered a burned hand, Grau said.
Sauter, a licensed pilot, had been a trooper since 2008 and had just completed a temporary assignment in the state police air operations. He was recently assigned to District 15, which covers the tollways. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and his parents.
Sauter lived in Vernon Hills, but he grew up in Chicago Ridge and wanted to be a trooper since he was a child, according to another neighbor Pam Milashoski, whose son Dan had been a close friend since both were toddlers.
"Jimmy was straight-and-narrow, through and through," Milashoski said. "He always knew what he wanted to be."
Sauter played football and baseball at Richards High School and often went on long training runs with Milashoski's son, who joined the Army around the time Sauter became a trooper.
"He was always very motivated," Milashoski's daughter, Cheryl, said as she wiped away tears. "He wanted to do good."
Schaal said Sauter had asked him for his opinion about taking a job with the state police. Once he was sworn in, Sauter loved to talk about the job. "I just knew he was going to be great."
Schaal said Sauter was mechanically inclined and was a trained pilot who flew surveillance planes for the state police. He later went back to road patrol.
As a cadet, Sauter was awarded the Lifesaving Medal in October of 2008. While on his way to the state police training academy, he saw a motorcycle on its side in the eastbound lane of I-80. No emergency vehicles were there yet, so Sauter grabbed a first responder bag and crossed over the lanes to help, state police said. Sauter tended to a woman whose airway was blocked by blood. She was airlifted to a hospital and survived, state police said.
"Trooper Sauter was a very talented, wonderful police officer," Grau said. "He was with our air ops operations unit, he’s a pilot, and tried that for … a couple a months and decided, you know, he wanted to come back and work the roads. Very well-respected.
"As you can imagine, his fellow troopers, his fellow officers are devastated," he continued. "I spent some time with his wife Liz this morning and as you can imagine, very difficult time for her… They’re all devastated as we are."
His fellow troopers followed a flat-bed truck carrying Sauter's body, still in his charred car, down the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways toward the morgue as Chicago police cleared traffic for the procession early this morning.
At the medical examiner's office on the West Side, a platoon of Chicago police officers and five sergeants stood watch, under a full moon, as firefighters worked to remove the trooper and bring his body into the morgue. A state police investigator circled the wrecked car and took photos as firefighters pried away sections of it.
Several state troopers stood in a line to their right in their tan uniforms. The Chicago police officers stood in formation, about ten wide, four deep, with the supervisors in the back.
As a morgue worker stepped out to the intake bay, surrounded on three sides by glossy white brick walls, an officer called out, "Attention."
The other officers stiffened, their arms at their side, as the officer ordered, "Present arm!” The officers raised their right hands in salute.
"Order arm," the officer ordered, and they dropped their arms.
"At ease." The officers brought their hands behind their backs and spread their feet in “parade rest” position.
As firefighters continued working on the car, the officers shifted their weight as sergeants stepped around the corner to answer radio calls.
As the hour went on, the officers did not break ranks but placed their hands in pockets and vests to ward off the early morning chill. Steam curled from a firefighter's head after he removed his helmet.
Sauter is the second Illinois state trooper killed in the last five months. Trooper Kyle Deatherage, 32, was struck and killed by a semi during a traffic stop the end of November along northbound Interstate 55 near Litchfield.
"Unfortunately, this is the second line of duty death within the last five months for the Illinois state police," Grau said. "Trooper Sauter represented everything good about this department."
Visitation will be held Monday at the Hills Funeral Home at 10201 South Roberts Rd. in Palos Hills. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Morraine Valley Church, 6300 W. 127th St. in Palos Heights.