'You really do lose a part of yourself': No peace for family of postal worker shot on expressway
Celebrating graduation with her mom who worked late shifts to pay for college costs made that rite of passage a shining moment for Jayla Shelton.
"There's this picture of both of us cheesing so hard" for the camera, said Shelton, who graduated magna cum laude from Jacksonville University in Florida. "That was probably one of the proudest moments of both our lives."
But when it came to another mother-daughter milestone -- Shelton's wedding in September -- her beloved parent, Tamara Clayton, wasn't there.
Clayton, 55, was driving to work from the South suburbs to a late-night shift at the U.S. Postal Service near O'Hare International Airport at around 10 p.m. Feb. 4, 2019, when bullets fired on I-57 near Cicero Avenue struck and killed her.
More than two years later, the crime remains unsolved.
Shelton recalled a woman with a passion for family and fun, who cared for her grandmother after heart surgery, wouldn't say no to a conga line, and always was there for her daughter.
"She was the life of the party," Shelton said. "She was really energetic."
The two were friends, as well. "I'm a huge nerd and I took her to one of my anime conventions," Shelton said. In exchange, Clayton took her daughter on annual house music bus tours in Chicago, and both loved roller-skating together.
In October of 2018, to celebrate Clayton's birthday, they jaunted to Universal Studios theme park for rides and cotton candy, and "she still had enough energy to be part of a conga line at one of the restaurants," Shelton recalled.
It was a break from a strenuous job where Clayton was on her feet continually, lifting packages up to 70 pounds. "It did take a wear and tear on her body," Shelton said.
But the stability and salary that helped pay for private school and college tuition kept Clayton at her late-night shift, despite concerns about crime en route from her Country Club Hills home to work.
Shelton hit the books at college and threw herself into a career as a recruiter to help her mother retire early so "she was going to eventually move to wherever my husband and I settled down so I could take care of her."
Instead, Shelton planned her wedding without the vivacious Clayton, and although her aunt was there to walk her down the aisle, the loss shadowed a happy day.
"We had memorial areas and things of that nature, but it definitely was tough."
The day Clayton died, she had one of those ordinary phone conversations with her daughter that become special, unbeknown to either that they can never happen again.
Super Bowl ads. Shelton's house search. Clayton's gearing up for work that night. Grandma's health.
"I didn't want to stay on the phone too long because I always felt bad about taking time away from her sleep," Shelton recalled. "She never slept a full eight hours."
With her mom's death, she said, "you really do lose a part of yourself."
Illinois lawmakers passed the Tamara Clayton Expressway Camera Act in July of 2019 to install cameras that capture footage of license plates with the intent of catching highway shooters.
The investigation into her death "remains open and ongoing," officials said on Feb. 11, when announcing $12.5 million in funding for the technology.
"Tamara Clayton's tragic death must not be forgotten, and we must do everything we can to prevent more expressway shootings," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement.
Since Feb. 11, there have been more than 160 Chicago and Cook County expressway shootings with 17 fatalities as of last week, the Illinois State Police reported.
Finding peace is elusive without justice, Shelton said Wednesday. "Peace is a really tough thing that I can't necessarily say I have to this day until there's an actual change in Illinois, especially with the violence increasing," she added.