An I-294 memorial to a fallen state trooper, with a message: Drive responsibly

Illinois State Police Trooper Christopher Lambert died protecting a group of fellow citizens on a suburban expressway.

That stretch of I-294 near Willow Road in Northbrook is now named in Lambert's honor, after a solemn dedication ceremony Thursday attended by his widow, Halley, two young daughters and dozens of law enforcement peers.

But his former colleagues hope the sign above the roadway reading "Trooper Christopher Lambert Memorial Highway" serves as more than a reminder of the trooper's sacrifice.

"We hope that as (drivers) see the signs honoring troopers who've lost their lives in the line of duty, it's a daily reminder to drive responsibly," state police Sgt. Jacqueline Cepeda said after Thursday's dedication ceremony at the Rosemont Theatre.

State police say Lambert, 34, lost his life because another driver didn't heed that message.

The five-year state police veteran was on his way home to Highland Park after wrapping up a day patrolling the tollway system on a snowy Jan. 12 when he spotted a three-car pileup on northbound I-294.

A Dayton, Ohio-native who served in the U.S. Army before joining the state police in 2015, Lambert pulled over to help and keep those involved in the collisions safe. He was standing outside his patrol vehicle when an SUV that failed to slow down or move over struck him. He succumbed to his injuries later that evening.

"Chris left this world the way he lived, putting the well-being of others above his own," the Rev. Harold Stanger said during Thursday's service.

State police Director Brendan Kelly said Lambert won praise during his time with the agency for his leadership and dedication to serving others, traits that extended beyond his law enforcement work.

"Chris lived a purposeful life, a life of service," Kelly said. "But his most important role was as a loving son, husband and father."

  A procession of state police and other vehicles moves along a stretch of I-294 designated Thursday as the "Trooper Christopher Lambert Highway" in honor of a fallen state trooper from Highland Park. Brian Hill/

'Difficult year'

That's how Kelly described 2019 during Thursday's dedication. Funerals and memorial dedications have been all too common for the state police, which have lost four troopers in the line of duty since January.

Besides Lambert, Trooper Gerald Ellis, 36, of Antioch was killed in a March 30 crash, just two days after Trooper Brooke Jones-Story, 34, died in a crash near Freeport. And in August, Trooper Nicholas Hopkins, 33, was shot and killed while serving a search warrant in East St. Louis.

The widows of Ellis and Hopkins were in Rosemont for Thursday's dedication ceremony.

"As much as this is a memorial to Chris today, it's also a thank you for your sacrifice and your courage," Kelly said to the troopers' widows.

Case update

The case against the driver charged in the crash that killed Lambert continues to work its way through the criminal justice system.

Scott A. Larsen of Kenosha County, Wisconsin, is scheduled to appear in a Cook County courtroom Dec. 13 on charges of reckless homicide of a police officer and violating Scott's Law, which requires drivers to slow down and move over, if possible, when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle.

If found guilty, he faces as much as 14 years in prison.

Authorities say Larson was driving more than 10 mph over the speed limit in wintry conditions and had a "cannabinoid" substance in his system when he lost control of his SUV and struck Lambert.

State police lawsuit

Trooper Douglas A. Balder survived his own harrowing roadside crash and returned to duty in 2015, but now he's one of four employees suing the state police and the Illinois Tollway, claiming they were punished for speaking out against misconduct in their ranks.

Illinois State Police Trooper Douglas Balder is suing the agency in federal court over claims he was retaliated against for speaking out against his superiors. Daily Herald File Photo, 2015

The suit filed this week in U.S. District Court alleges Balder was removed from his position as a staff officer and saw his chances of being promoted sabotaged because he wrote an email criticizing two superiors at ISP District 15, the Downers Grove-based unit that patrols the tollway system.

Fellow troopers Brandon Engleking and David Dickson also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, claiming they were blocked from promotion after complaining about management. The fourth plaintiff, civilian worker Athena Clifford, alleges she was denied overtime opportunities and received artificially low performance ratings after she reported discrimination and harassment.

The suit seeks undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages, compensation for lost benefits and an injunction barring future retaliation.

The Illinois State Police does not comment on pending litigation, Cepeda said in response to an inquiry about the lawsuit. A tollway spokesman also declined to comment.

Some may recall Balder for his return to full duty in January 2015, exactly one year after he suffered 13 broken ribs, a broken left scapula and severe burns over his entire left side in a fiery crash on I-88 near Aurora.

Police said Balder had pulled over to assist with a disabled vehicle when a truck driven by a fatigued driver slammed into his patrol car and a tollway vehicle. The crash killed tollway worker Vince Petrella of Wheeling.

The truck's driver was found guilty of multiple charges and sentenced to three years in prison.

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