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updated: 3/31/2013 8:59 PM

Post-crash fire killed state trooper; trucker ticketed

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  • Trooper James Sauter

      Trooper James Sauter
    COURTESY OF the Illinois State Police

 
 

An Illinois State Trooper from Vernon Hills who was killed in the line of duty early Friday morning died in the post-crash fire, and the trucker who struck his vehicle has been ticketed for improper lane usage, authorities said Saturday.

Police said 28-year-old James Sauter was stopped on the inside shoulder of I-294 near Northbrook around 2 a.m. when his vehicle was struck from behind by a United Van Lines truck. The expressway is four lanes wide at that point and trucks are restricted to the two outside lanes. The vehicles burst into flames after the impact and Sauter was pronounced dead at the scene.

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A spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner's office said Saturday an autopsy showed the primary cause of Sauter's death -- which was ruled accidental -- was thermal injuries from the post-crash fire.

Police said the driver of the truck had minor burns on his hands. The driver, whose name is not being released, was cited for improper lane usage, Illinois State Police Spokeswoman Monique Bond said Saturday. Any additional charges await the outcome of the investigation.

Visitation for Sauter will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Monday, April 1, at Moraine Valley Church, 6300 W. 127th St. in Palos Heights. Funeral services will also be held at the church starting at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2. Interment will be private.

Sauter was hit shortly after helping a driver on I-94. Police are not sure why he was stopped on the shoulder or whether his emergency flashers were on.

Bond said after the crash, dozens of police officers and firefighters from numerous agencies participated in a traditional procession to the morgue, where they did an honorary salute and stood at attention.

"It's something breathtaking to see actually," Bond said. "You would never imagine in the middle of the night to see just dozens and dozens of officers standing at attention. It's a moment of silence and a moment of honor and respect."

Sauter is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, his parents and a younger brother.

Bond said Sauter is the second state trooper to be killed in the line of duty in the last five months. Trooper Kyle Deatherage was struck by a semi truck in November while conducting a traffic stop on I-55 near Collinsville. He was 32.

"This is uniquely very close (deaths) for Illinois State Police," Bond said.

State Trooper Ray Kurut remembers meeting Sauter on June 29, 2008 -- their first day at the police academy -- at a Shell gas station about a mile south of where they had to report.

"We were the two guys there with shaved heads," he said, adding that they had both stopped to buy a protein bar.

The two remained friends after the academy, and Kurut said Sauter became a trooper he really admired. He said he knows few other people who were as proud as Sauter to wear a police uniform.

"The first day I met him I knew this guy was serious about the Illinois State Police," he said. "I could never see Jim Sauter doing anything but being a trooper."

Sauter received a Lifesaving Medal for rescuing a woman who was face down in a pool of blood following a motorcycle accident in October 2008. According to reports, he crossed two lanes of traffic on I-80 to reach her.

While he was honored as a hero, Kurut said Sauter looked at it as being in the right place at the right time.

"After he won it, he talked to me a little bit about it, but just in the most humble way," Kurut said. "He was just thrilled he was given the opportunity to help someone out."

Kurut said he and Sauter together had met Deatherage not too long ago, and now both are dead. Before them, there hadn't been a death in District 15 in more than 10 years, Kurut said.

The deaths are "an open wound" for the entire Illinois State Police family, he said. "It's unbelievable. … He was too young."

Sauter grew up in Chicago Ridge and attended Richards High School. He was a 2008 graduate of Lewis University and a licensed pilot. Outside the job, he enjoyed fishing.

"He was raised in a very good Christian family, and he was very close to his religion," Kurut added.

The 100 Club of Chicago, a civilian organization that provides for the families of police officers, firefighters and paramedics killed in the line of duty, is providing $50,000 to Sauter's family. And the Illinois Truck Enforcement Association is matching up to $500 in contributions to Sauter's family made at illinoistruckcops.com.

• Daily Herald senior writer James Fuller contributed to this report.

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