SCOTTSBLUFF — Law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders came together to pay tribute to a Nebraska State Patrol trooper killed in the line of duty Thursday, just hours after his death.
Early Thursday afternoon, the Nebraska State Patrol identified Trooper Jerry Smith, 51, of Scottsbluff, as the trooper killed in a collision near Bridgeport earlier that day. The collision occurred on Highway 26, in front of the Oregon Trail Cemetery, two miles west of Bridgeport.
At approximately 7:45 a.m, Smith was on duty and traveling on Highway 26, in Morrill County, when the driver of another vehicle crossed the center line and struck his patrol unit head-on. Smith was pronounced deceased at the scene, according to the NSP. The driver of the other vehicle was ejected and was also pronounced deceased at the scene. The driver of a third vehicle that was involved in the crash was not seriously injured.
Morrill County Sheriff Milo Cardenas said the crash remains under investigation by the Morrill County Sheriff’s Office with assistance from the Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s Office.
"We know that there was a 2004 Dodge Pickup that was westbound on Highway 26. (The driver) had stopped to make a left turn into the cemetery," Cardenas said. "While it was waiting for oncoming traffic, which was Trooper Smith’s vehicle, there was a vehicle that came from behind and was traveling and swerved over to miss the 2002 Dodge pickup. It went into the oncoming traffic where Smith was traveling. The two vehicles collided."
The identities of the other drivers had not yet been released to the media as of Thursday afternoon.
"This is a tragic day for the Nebraska State Patrol," said Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol in statements released to the media. "A family has lost a husband and a father. Our troopers have lost a colleague and a friend. Our state has lost a true public servant."
In a show of respect, NSP troopers and other law enforcement agencies drove into Scottsbluff to honor the trooper’s family as they left a Scottsbluff funeral home.
Bolduc, Major Mike Jahnke and Cody Thomas, communications director for the Nebraska State Patrol, were among the troopers and emergency responders at Dugan-Kramer Funeral Chapel, where an escort that traveled on Highway 26 through Scottsbluff ended.
Bolduc addressed the troopers after paying their respects to the family.
"This will be one of the hardest days for all of us," Bolduc said. "Thank you all for showing respect and honor."
As the procession made its way down Highway 26, troopers were greeted at the intersection by members of the Scottsbluff Police and Fire departments. The fire department raised an American flag over the intersection and saluted troopers as they passed.
Smith’s wife was honored with a salute as she was escorted to her vehicle after leaving the funeral home. Smith is survived by his wife and three adult children.
"I think this is very important," Scottsbluff Fire Capt. Justin Houston said of the solemn ceremony. "We are all a very tight-knit family, so we want to come out and show our support for all of them through this. I know this is a hard time for them."
Smith joined the Nebraska State Patrol in 2014, graduating with the 56th Basic Recruit Class on May 1, 2015. Graduating at the age of 47, he is believed to be the oldest recruit to ever complete NSP’s Basic Recruit Camp. He was stationed in Scottsbluff as part of Troop E for his entire NSP career.
"Trooper Jerry Smith was killed in the line of duty today while patrolling Highway 26 in Morrill County," Capt. Kurt Von Minden said during a press conference. "These are the roads he patrolled his entire career with NSP, stationed in Troop E for his four years as a Trooper."
While Smith’s time with the state patrol was short, he was a mentor and leader for his fellow troopers.
"He was a mentor for all of the younger guys and he was a family man," Von Minden said. "He took great pride in being a state trooper and being a member of the Scottsbluff community. Jerry lived a life of service, dedication and there is no finer example for what a trooper should be."
Prior to joining NSP, he led a decorated career in the United States Army, serving the country from 1986 to 2011. Smith earned numerous honors during his military career, including a bronze star for his service in two tours of combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"Trooper Smith was doing what he did every day, diligently patrolling Nebraska’s roadways," Bolduc said. "This is a sad reminder of the dangers our law enforcement professionals face daily. Our prayers are with Trooper Smith’s family."
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a prepared statement that he and his wife, Susanne Shore, "mourn the passing of Trooper Smith, and send our deepest condolences to his family. Our state troopers selflessly put their lives on the line every day."
Ricketts said the loss of Smith will be felt not only by the patrol "but by the Panhandle and folks across the state. We ask all Nebraskans to join us in praying for his family and community as we honor Trooper Smith’s dedicated service and sacrifice."
A patrol spokesman said the last trooper to die in the line of duty was Mark Wagner. Wagner was accidentally shot and killed during a training exercise March 4, 1999, at the patrol’s North Platte office.
The governor ordered all U.S. and Nebraska flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Smith until 5 p.m. on the day of interment