At a busy stoplight in Indianapolis, in front of a gas station, is Shelby Smith’s memorial. She was killed at the intersection by a drunk driver 22 years ago, and the tribute has stood as a reminder of her life and tragic death ever since. Though trash often finds its way around the area, and though two decades of wear-and-tear inevitably takes its toll, Smith’s memorial itself is always presentable and clean— all because Indianapolis Police Officer Jeff Stagg has made it his personal mission to keep it so.
Officer Stagg wasn’t on duty when Shelby was killed, but he said that afterward he drove by as two of her friends were putting up her memorial and stopped to talk to them. The intersection is in the middle of Stagg’s beat, so he’s driven past Shelby’s plastic flowers and cross multiple times a day ever since.
After a few years, Stagg said he noticed the memorial deteriorating. Weeds began to overtake it, and trash accumulated quickly. He decided to take it upon himself to make sure Shelby—and the tribute to her life—wouldn’t be overlooked.
“I just decided I’m not gonna let Shelby’s death in this intersection be forgotten,” Stagg said. “I just started picking up trash, keeping the grass and weeds from encroaching around the cross and the little angel figurines and rocks they had put there at the base and just tried to keep it as presentable as I could.”
Since then, Stagg has stopped by the memorial about every other day to clean up the area and replace any weathered materials. He did so for years without prompting and without acknowledgment—until earlier this year.
In August, passerby Kaleb Hall caught Stagg in his vigil and stopped to thank him for his thoughtfulness, thinking the officer was just picking up litter. Stagg told Hall—and, since Hall was videoing the entire conversation, the world—Shelby’s story and what he was doing.
“I didn’t know her, but I remember the incident,” Stagg told Hall in the video. “I guess her family and friend moved on, so I just want to make sure it stays kept up. Someone needs to look after her memorial.”
Hall posted the video on TikTok, and it soon drew widespread attention. It found its way to Shelby’s mother, Sherry Smith, who had no idea anyone even paid attention to the memorial at all. Smith and her family had maintained it before they moved to Texas 12 years ago, but since then she said it’s been hard for anyone to visit it.
“It was overwhelming, and I was just so grateful because I had no idea that anyone had been doing that,” Smith told CNN.
Smith decided that she wanted to meet this man who had been so invested in her daughter’s story, and so she called Stagg in August to thank him. The two made plans to meet when Smith next came to visit. The date was set, and this past Monday, Oct. 18, the two met face-to-face at the gas station parking lot next to Shelby’s memorial.
“She called me about [meeting], and I said ‘Mrs. Smith, you’re not going to believe this, but I’m parked next to Shelby’s memorial as we speak,'” Stagg said. “And her voice started to crack and then my voice started to crack and it was an emotional conversation.”
The meeting was just as emotional—Smith brought flowers and a picture of Shelby, and Stagg had arranged beforehand to have a new cross built. The two shared a hug before moving to the memorial.
“I knew I had to meet him because he had to be a very special person,” Smith said. “And he is.”
As for Stagg, he said that he’s just happy to be able to work a job that gives him opportunities to make a difference.
“I believe this strongly that this is part of the job,” Stagg said. “When we can try to do something to make things a little bit better as a result of a tragedy, that’s what we do.”