Site of 1979 gun fight on I-57 finally memorialized

PAXTON — William “Bill” Caisse will always be remembered as a mentor to his younger brother Bob.

Bob recalls how he would look up to Bill as the two participated in track-and-field at Paxton Community High School in the 1960s, and every time Bill would set a record, Bob would try to beat it.

“I was always looking up to him for what he would share with me, and then when he joined the Mormon religion I was even more impressed as to the vastness of what all he was trying to do with his life,” Bob Caisse said.

Two years Bob’s elder, Bill Caisse would eventually become a Paxton patrolman, and Bob would wonder how his brother — who, as a teenager, would run around town “raising hell” — could suddenly be enforcing the law and “doing things right.”

“I asked him once, ‘Bill, how do you do that — how do you give a ticket to your friends that you used to run with?’ And he says, ‘It’s easy. If it’s against the law, you get a ticket,’” recalled Bob Caisse, now living in Jacksonville, Fla.

Bill Caisse will always be the brother to whom Bob envied. Today, however, Bill Caisse is also remembered as a hero.

On Monday morning, the Paxton community and state of Illinois paid tribute to Mr. Caisse and others involved in a shootout with members of a Michigan family on Interstate 57 south of Paxton. The bloody gun battle of April 7, 1979, claimed the lives of Mr. Caisse, state trooper Michael McCarter and civilian Donald Vice, who was riding with Mr. McCarter, his brother-in-law. Paxton patrolman Larry Hale was also wounded but recovered.

In dedicating the overpass crossing I-57 where the shootout took place as the “McCarter-Caisse-Vice-Hale Memorial Overpass,” Paxton Mayor Bill Ingold told the victims’ family members and friends that he hoped the designation would serve as a “permanent reminder” of the fallen officers’ contributions to “serve and protect the safety of the public.”

A couple of hundred people attended Monday’s ceremony at the Paxton firehouse, including officers from the Illinois State Police and Paxton Police Department and family members and friends of Mr. Caisse, Mr. McCarter, Mr. Vice and Hale.

Earlier, signs commemorating the overpass as the site of the shootout were installed on both southbound and northbound I-57. The 7-foot-wide, 42-inch-tall signs are brown with white lettering, saying “McCarter-Caisse-Vice-Hale Memorial Overpass.”

This moment had been a long time coming. The legislation memorializing the overpass — House Joint Resolution 21 — was introduced by state Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, on Feb. 6, 2017, but it took more than a year to get through both the House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Family members of the fallen officers were grateful for the recognition.

“It’s certainly been a long time coming,” said Mr. McCarter’s only son, Patrick, who made the trip from his hometown of Indianapolis to see his dad honored. “It’s very bitter-sweet. We certainly still miss him every day, but we’re very thankful that the state government has been so diligent — and specifically Tom Bennett — in keeping this issue alive and making sure that this isn’t forgotten and ensuring that this gets done — and not just for my father but for all four men. It’s a very huge honor.”

Bill Bryant, a son of Mr. Vice and nephew of Mr. McCarter, said it was nice to hear them finally recognized as the heroes they are.

“The family’s known (their heroics) for many years,” Bryant said.

Among the several family members of Mr. Caisse in attendance were his widow, Linda, and daughter, Angela. Mr. Caisse was only 32 years old when he was killed by gunfire near the overpass at Ford County Road 200 North.

“It means the world,” his daughter said about the commemoration, her eyes tearing up. “I mean, I don’t remember much about (my father), but it’s just an honor. And just to be able to meet some of the people who knew him, it’s great.”

“It just means a lot that his sacrifice is recognized,” Bill Caisse’s widow said. “He was kind. He was a hard worker. He was a great father, a great husband. He was just an all-around wonderful guy.”

The emotions were running high Monday for Hale. The chance to meet the family members of his fallen comrades was a highlight for the 66-year-old retiree, who is now living in Henry County in Tennessee.

“It was absolutely awesome,” Hale said. “A lot of people I didn’t recognize. I guess my eyes are getting old or something.”

Hale will forever be haunted by the shootout, but having a permanent reminder of the officers and civilian who died in it helps.

“It’s just something that should have been done and I appreciate that it has been done,” Hale said, “but I don’t think there’s ever going to be any closure, especially for the families of the victims.”

Jodi Barth, a former state police crime-scene technician who processed the scene of the shootout and recently wrote a book about her experiences doing so, said it was a “very healing experience” to see so many people involved in the crime whom she had not seen in decades. For the victims of the shootout to finally be honored all these years later also felt “great,” she said.

“Their memories are there now forever, hopefully, and they should be,” Barth said. “That was an incredible night, and those men were incredibly brave men, so it needed to happen.”

Bennett called the four men who died in the shootout “heroes to this community and the state of Illinois.” Bennett said he hoped the memorial signs “might in some small way help bring some sense of closure” to their family members and friends.

“We are humbled and grateful for the sacrifices that have been made by these fine young men,” added state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who was the chief sponsor of House Joint Resolution 21 in the Senate.

Illinois State Police Director Leo P. Schmitz said police are always there to support their comrades and their families, and Monday’s ceremony showed it.

“We’re here for you,” Schmitz told the fallen officers’ family members. “That’s what this is all about. We remember our fallen troopers, but we’re here for you. We’ll forever talk about them.

“What we need to do and what we do is we never forget. We never forget the families who are left behind. We never forget those officers that we lose. We tell their stories over and over. It’s what we do. We’ll never forget that they took this job for this noble cause, and they risked their lives to protect others. We’ll never forget to keep them in our hearts. We will never forget them.”

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