Officer Down: Chief of Police Randy Wells
Officer Down: Chief Randy Wells - [Forest Hills, Kentucky]
Chief Wells remembered by family, friend
By Jessie Halladay and Charlie White
FOREST HILLS, Ky. — For 16 years, Randy Wells spent his days and nights patrolling the streets of the small city of Forest Hills.
He’d carry newspapers to elderly residents’ porches. When someone new moved in, he’d make a point to introduce himself.
He’d pick up a gallon of milk at the store if a resident needed it. On patriotic holidays, he’d place a small American flag in the yard of every home.
“It was those little things he did for us,” said Susan Strange, a commissioner in Forest Hills, who knew Wells for about 15 years. “Randy just kind of went above and beyond.”
Wells, 67, died yesterday while blocking traffic on the Gene Snyder Freeway for a crew that was replacing reflectors in the roadway.
His white Camaro was struck by a truck, whose driver said he lost control of the vehicle while trying to avoid the maintenance work, said Lt. Doug Sweeney, head of the Louisville Metro Police traffic unit.
Today, Wells’ family began the arduous process of planning a funeral — one that will include full police honors.
“He really, truly loved being a police officer,” said his stepson, Chris Merrifield. “Although his death was tragic, he died doing what he loved.”
He said the family is struggling to accept what happened.
“Our hearts are very heavy, but we do have a strong family, and we’re going to get through this,” Merrifield said.
Wells had been married to his wife, Sue, for 16 years. He also had a stepdaughter and two grandchildren.
‘He loved the job’
Wells, who lived in neighboring Jeffersontown, became the chief and only officer for the Forest Hills police department in 1991.
During his time there, Forest Hills’ commissioners said Wells doggedly patrolled the community of 186 homes.
“It was nice knowing at night that Randy was patrolling our city,” said Mayor Kenny Griffin.
This afternoon, brothers Benji and Daniel Heil, who had set up a ramp and were skateboarding in a street that ends near their Forest Hills home, talked about how Wells’ presence had kept them safe.
Though their home is just a half mile from the congested intersection of Taylorsville Road and Hurstbourne Parkway, Wells would keep traffic moving slowly, said Benji, 12, noting that, “some people try to fly down this street.”
When Wells passed children on bicycles, skates or skateboards in his Camaro, he would remind them to ride on the side of the road or in the grass if they could, Benji said.
“Every time he’d come by, he’d wave at us,” said Daniel, 9, noting that Wells knew nearly everyone in the community by first name.
And each Halloween, Wells “gave out glow sticks and candy” to trick-or-treaters as he drove the streets of Forest Hills, Benji said.
Always a practical joker, Wells would use Halloween to play pranks on some of his friends — like putting rubber rats in Commissioner Sharon Henry’s mailbox each year.
“He was an old-fashioned kind of policeman that people could just call and he’d be there,” Henry said.
Louisville Metro Police Officer Chris Starks, 33, met Wells at the then-Jefferson County Police Academy in 1998, where Wells was training for state certification for his job with Forest Hills and Starks was a young police recruit. A change in state law required all police officers in small city departments to take the training.
Wells became a mentor to Starks, who said the two developed a “father-son” type bond.
“As an officer, who wouldn’t want to be like him? He did it because he loved the job,” said Starks.
On Monday, Starks was working in the area of the crash when he heard the call about it on his police radio. When he heard it was a Forest Hills police officer, he knew instantly it was Wells.
“There was no way I was not going to go there,” said Starks, breaking down in tears.
Wells was using his car to protect a highway maintenance crew when the accident occurred.
About 2 p.m. Monday, three of the crew’s vehicles were moving from the shoulder onto the freeway near La Grange Road, followed by Wells’ white Camaro with its flashing emergency lights operating.
As they entered the road, a truck struck Wells’ car on the left side, spinning the car around and into the vehicle in front of him, said Sweeney, of the metro police traffic unit.
Sweeney said the driver of the truck told investigators that he did not see the lights on the Camaro but saw a construction arrow on one of the trucks diverting traffic to the left. The driver told police he attempted to get over to the left lane, but heard a loud pop and then lost control of his vehicle.
No charges are expected to be filed against the driver, whose name has not been released. Preliminary investigations indicate the truck driver was traveling within the speed limit, Sweeney said.
The accident sent four other people, including the truck driver, to area hospitals. All were treated and released Monday, Sweeney said.
Laws in both Kentucky and Indiana require motorists to move over or slow down for a stopped emergency vehicle when its warning lights are activated. Still, the leading cause of injury and death for police officers across the nation remains officers being struck by a vehicle, according to Louisville Metro Police.
This is especially true on interstates and freeways, where vehicles are moving at higher speeds, said Officer Phil Russell, a police spokesman.
Officers are often hired to work off-duty serving as a visual beacon to alert motorists of construction crews working in the area.
“The idea is hopefully seeing the lights will make them slow down,” Russell said.
“You get so used to seeing police on the side of the road,” he said. “All it takes is someone to reach down to look for their cell phone or to turn the radio station.”
Started in sheriff’s office
Wells began his police work with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. At one point he was the county’s highest-paid deputy under then-Sheriff Jim Greene.
In 1992, Wells secretly recorded a conversation with Greene and gave it to The Courier-Journal. Newspaper stories about the tape said it captured Greene using profanity and making sexual and racial slurs.
In August 1993, Greene was sentenced to six months in prison and a $125,000 fine after pleading guilty to federal tax evasion and mail fraud charges.
Wells had earlier made headlines of his own when the newspaper reported in 1991 that he’d been selling weapons and ammunition to Greene’s office at a 44 percent markup. Greene later agreed to stop buying supplies from employees.
Wells retired from the sheriff’s office in 1991 after he was badly beaten during the arrest of a hockey player. He also retired from his job as a vice president of Republic Bank.
That’s when he went to work patrolling the streets of Forest Hills.
Copyright 2007 The Louisville Courier-Journal