State trooper dedicated to saving lives on highways
Sunday, July 19, 2009 8:15 AM CDT
Mary Schenk E-mail Story
PESOTUM – When Richard Burton was in the fourth grade in Danville, an Illinois state trooper lived across the street from his school.
He remembers being smitten by the man and his uniform: "I thought that's where I wanted to go."
It took Burton, now 53, a while to get to his ultimate career goal. But at age 40, after having been a warehouse worker, machinery millwright, auto parts salesman, roofer, tuckpointer and a Champaign police officer, he made it into the Illinois State Police Academy.
"It's like Marine boot camp. I did every push-up, sit-up, and ran every mile," Burton said.
In late 1996 he began patrolling the highways of the nine counties of District 10 in East Central Illinois and has been at it with pleasure ever since.
"I'm very proud of the Illinois State Police. I love what I do. It's a different animal," he said.
State Trooper Richard Burton holds his 'Challenge Coin' at the Illinois State Police Headquarters in Pesotum. By John Dixon
Earlier this month, State Police Director Jonathon Monken presented Burton with a "challenge coin," a rare award intended to recognize "someone who's done a good job," said Capt. Scott Compton, a state police spokesman.
"I'm nobody special, just a cop who works the interstates," said Burton, proud of the award but embarrassed by the accompanying attention.
Burton, who lives in Tolono, is well-liked by his peers and superiors. He's considered an expert in District 10 on motor carrier safety, radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging). He is a field training officer, a radar instructor, and recently became a crash reconstruction officer.
"Richard is a hard worker, gets good things accomplished for those he has sworn to protect, and he is an overall great trooper," said Rory Steidl, a master sergeant in District 10. "He's a dandy of a talker."
Said Capt. Stuart Shaver, District 10 commander: "His enthusiasm for his work is so contagious. I love having him. I'd love more just like him."
Fellow troopers have dubbed Burton "Doctor Death" because he's handled more fatal accidents than any of his sworn colleagues, a fact that doesn't surprise Shaver given that Burton spends much of his time patrolling in and near Champaign County on interstates 57 and 74.
"Richard's not the type of guy who spends inordinate time doing specialty jobs like teaching at the range. He's a patrol officer who focuses all his attention on patrol. If there's an accident or crash, the odds are he's going to be one of the people called. He puts himself in a position to be in the corridor where these things are happening. We know where serious injuries and fatals are happening. We try to patrol with those things in mind," Shaver saud.
In his 13 years in District 10, Burton has been involved in the investigation of accidents that left 31 people dead.
"Twenty were kids under 21, and nine died because of no seat belts. I look at the human potential and the life lost," he said.
In late April he became a certified accident reconstruction specialist, delving in to the hows and whys of crashes.
He's engrossed, mostly on his off-duty hours, in reconstructing a May 23 accident on Illinois 130 in northern Coles County that left four people dead and a pickup truck hauling a camping trailer consumed by fire. He's spent countless hours doing research on the pickup's gas tanks.
"I've got pages and pages. I've got about 300 photos. It is extensive and I'm nowhere near done," he said.
A prolific ticket writer – about 800 last year – Burton said he often wonders if what he does makes a difference. A letter sent him by the family of a young man killed in a crash he investigated two years ago reminds him that he does.
The accident happened in November 2007 on a two-lane state highway north of Mahomet. An 18-year-old boy in a car crossed the center line, colliding with a 68-year-old man in a pickup.
Seeing the teen, Burton feared he wouldn't live and on the spot asked God to take him to heaven. At the hospital, he shared with the family that he had prayed for their son.
Weeks later, the family sent him the letter saying that the 68-year-old man told them he saw an angel walking to the boy's car with Burton.
"That tells me there is a God. The old man who was seriously injured saw that. People can say he was hallucinating. I don't care. I told nobody I was praying when I saw that boy. I only told the family at the hospital after he was pronounced dead," Burton said.
Burton said having faith in a higher power is critical to his work, much of which is done without benefit of backup officers.
"I have to have some kind of a spiritual base because too much stuff happens that's unexplainable," he said.
That includes his own narrow escape from serious injury and death while on the highway investigating accidents.
Previously married but single now, the father of daughters ages 30 and 31 is a bit paternalistic in his dealings with the public.
"That's much of what I try to do: save them from their foolish choices to speed, not wear seat belts, drive impaired, have no driver's license, do drugs, etc.
"If we can get these people to wear seat belts ... I want them to stay in these vehicles. I can't do anything for you when the vehicle has squashed you."
Some listen. Many don't.
"I tell you, it's Forrest Gump running wild: 'Stupid is as stupid does.' I try to be a nice guy on every stop. People will talk you into all kinds of stuff. Just when I think I've heard everything, I haven't."