Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West was protecting people he didn’t know when he was shot and killed in May 2007.
He was responding to a fight on Altamont Avenue — a routine call — and was shot as he was getting out of his car.
The 31-year-old was risking his life not for family or friends, but for strangers, as all police officers are asked to do.
When he died, shock, sadness and anger paralyzed the community. It had been nearly 60 years since someone died in the line of duty in Cleveland Heights.
A woman he had never met was devastated by his passing and inspired by his devotion to his work. Less than a year after the tragic incident, Lita Gonzalez, a stranger to West, established a scholarship fund for students in the law enforcement and criminal justice program at Cleveland Heights High School in his honor.
“I didn’t know him. I didn’t know his family, but there is no reason why this community shouldn’t be able to do something to honor his memory,” Gonzalez said, wiping away tears as she spoke. “This wasn’t just his beat. He lived in this community. He wanted to be a part of this community. He was putting his life on the line for total strangers.”
A community scholarship
Gonzalez doesn’t come from a family of police officers. She doesn’t have a close friend on the force. Her altruism has no motivation aside from a desire to give back.
Several others came forward right after he died. His best friend, Commander Bob Montgomery, raised more than $100,000 for his family. And Alex Quintana, who cut his hair at Quintana’s Barber & Dream Spa, also organized a fundraiser. But Gonzalez wanted future generations to know him.
Since 2008, she and a committee have selected one graduating senior who receives $500 toward any college expense. The previous year’s winner also receives an additional $500 if they successfully complete their freshman year in college. They are also asked to come back and speak to the law enforcement criminal justice students about their freshmen experience.
Gonzalez, 62, who moved to Cleveland Heights more than 15 years ago, first raised money for the scholarship through donations, mostly from friends. In 2009, Phoenix Coffee helped her with a small raffle by selling tickets and donating prizes like mugs. Something the entire community could contribute to.
Last year she and the committee members held a Mega Raffle to raise money for the scholarship and asked more local businesses to chip in. More than 20 merchants donated gift certificates worth $25 to $250 for raffle prizes, and some sold the $2 tickets to enter the contest. The Mega Raffle helped raise more than $3,000 for the program.
"We have enough to keep us going for several years. We’re not just raising for this year or next year, we’re raising for five years down the road," she said.
Gonzalez received so many gift certificates this year that she created three prize packages valued at $100, $200 and $1,000.
“Other scholarship (programs) may do golf outings or something like that. We’ve picked this because it pulls the community together,” she said. "It’s an exciting scholarship because it’s part of (the students') community ... It’s exciting for me to be able to say to (West's) family that is how this community is remembering your son. This is how we’re honoring your son."
She said the West family has asked to not be contacted by media. But they attended the raffle last year, and Gonzalez sends them information about the scholarship winners.
Commander Bob Montgomery, 43, said Gonzalez asked him to be on the committee to review the scholarship applications. He gladly accepted.
“I didn’t know Lita, and J (Jason West) didn’t know her. We didn’t know her from Adam,” Montgomery said. “His mom loves it. She loves hearing stuff about her kid. She comes every year to the raffle. It’s good for her. She comes in and sees people still care about her kid."
The department loses a friend
Montgomery said that West was like a brother to him.
“If I ever needed anything, day, night, all I would have to is pick the phone up and he’d be right over. And that was one of his qualities. He always was just one of those kids, if you called him and said, ‘I need a favor,’ he’d be like boom and be right over,” he said. “Even at shift change, if there was a late call, he’d take it. He was always willing to go the extra mile … He just loved the job.”
Montgomery was supposed to have dinner with West the night he died. But West had to go on just one more call.
“The only bad part (of still being on the same force) is if I ever have to go to Altamont. That’s the worst part of my life. I still go down it. I’m not really fond of going to calls there. We still patrol it, and I still do what I’m supposed to do,” Montgomery said.
He prefers to talk about the good times. Like when they were chasing a suspect through a backyard, and West tripped over a ladder during the pursuit. West had a good sense of humor and could laugh at himself.
“When you go back somewhere you’ve been on a call at before, it just brings memories back,” he said. “People talk about him all the time. We send his parents cards every year on the anniversary of his death. We make sure that (his mom) is not forgotten, and that she knows we love her.”
They spent about 20 hours a day together, he said. They were both on the department’s former motorcycle unit, a vehicle they both loved, and in addition to working full-time on the force, they spent about 30 hours a week at Montgomery’s landscaping business. Montgomery has a cabinet in his home filled with photos of West, his badge, motorcycle helmet and other sentimental mementos.
When West died, Montgomery raised more than $100,000 for his family and still distributes stickers made to remember him. He still checks in with West's mother.
“The only way he dies is when this is all over. As long as we’re all still here and this (scholarship) is going, his memory stays,” he said. “I was happy that I got to spend as much time as I did with him. Most people didn’t get to spend that kind of time with him. We had a blast when we worked together.”
Scholarship continues today
Gonzalez and co-chair Betsey Bell created a committee of a dozen people to help choose the scholarship recipient, and Montgomery was one of the first members. Other volunteers include local business owners such as Alex and Dawn Quintana of Quintana’s Barber & Dream Spa and members of the Cleveland Heights Police Department, including Investigator Quintero Mack and Chief Jeffrey Robertson.
“Lita Gonzalez asked me (a few months ago), and of course I said yes,” Robertson said. “I look forward to it, to help out anywhere I can.”
Robertson has a photo of West, an Avon native, and the three other officers who have died in the line of duty hanging in his office.
“I’m happy that Jason West’s name will continue to be remembered."
To ensure students know who West was, applicants must research how he lived his life and write an essay based on what they discover. In addition, they have to explain why they're applying and reflect on a life-altering event they've overcome. Though Gonzalez would not divulge specifics about the personal essays, she said many write about the death of a loved one.
GPA and other traditional student performance indicators take a back seat to the essays. Gonzalez said she only receives about two to three entries a year, and she'd like to see more to not only honor West, but other officers on the force.
"I’ve asked myself so many times, 'Would I be able to put my life on the line if someone screamed help and I didn’t know them?' That’s what keeps me going," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez has spent much of her life volunteering and working in social service professions. Her first year out of college, she taught pre-teens and teens who had gone through the courts for various crimes. When her daughters were in school, she participated in the PTA. She spearheaded a program in 2003 called PATH, Parent Ambassadors To Heights, to try to battle the perception that Heights High was an underperforming, out-of-control school.
She and other volunteers gave prospective parents tours of the school.
Someone just needed to take the lead, she explained. And when a community was still mourning a fallen officer, she stepped up.
"Sometimes it takes one person to step forward, but I felt a need, an internal need to do something to honor him," she said. "This was our way of honoring Jason. And I love the way we chose, because it keeps giving back every single year, and every year we’re educating people about him and who he was and why we’re doing this."
People can enter the raffle at Dave’s Cosmic Subs, the Phoenix Coffee on Lee and Coventry, Quintana’s Barber & Dream Spa, Restore Hair Studio, Shawn Paul Salon and The Tavern Company until Nov. 20. Zagara's Marketplace will also sell tickets in the lobby on Nov. 6 and 12. The Raffle drawing will be at 6 p.m. Nov. 20 at Parnell's Pub, and scholarship winners are announced in the spring. For more information, visit the Officer Jason D. West Memorial Scholarship Facebook page.
Note: The man charged with killing Jason West was sentenced to life in prison in Oct. 2009.