When the three Keltner boys were children, they played military guys and cops and robbers.
Along with their two cousins, they called themselves the “Five Brothers.”
Jacob “Jake” Keltner, the oldest of the bunch, always was their leader. He wanted to grow up and be a real police officer just like his own father, Howard Keltner.
And that he did.
In real life, Jacob Keltner became a McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy and a special agent of the U.S. Marshals Great Lakes Regional Fugitive Task Force.
But, on March 7 the 35-year-old married father of two young sons from Crystal Lake was shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant on a fugitive at a Rockford hotel.
In their first few moments of getting word he had been shot, the family was in disbelief.
“He was so safe and good at his job,” his wife, Becki Keltner, said. “I just thought ‘He’s gonna be fine … whatever it is, he’s gonna be fine.’ ”
In the months since, family members said they have been shattered, yet uplifted by the outpouring of love and comfort from people within their own community as well as strangers from across the country.
“It makes you see how many good people there actually are out there,” Becki said. “There have been a ton of fundraisers, specifically for my family. I don’t ever know that they are happening. People just send me money or I see a Facebook post. It is crazy that people are thinking of us.”
But Becki, who met her husband at a party her freshman year at Western Illinois University, said it is her children, Carson, 5, and Caleb, 7, who truly give her strength.
“The kids keep me going every day,” she said. “I have to get out of bed every morning.”
She said the boys “talk about him pretty freely” and remember him often, such as the time they were watching TV and “Marvin the Martian” came on. Carson looked up and said “Dad used to love that martian!” she recalled.
Moments like these, his humor, sketches he drew in a book discovered shortly after his death and memories of how much he loved his friends, family and the Fourth of July have given way to moments of brief smiles.
Since his death, the family has received meals from strangers. The boys have been part of special moments, such as riding in a fire truck during the recent procession leading the Vietnam memorial wall to Randall Oaks Park in West Dundee.
The boys also have been driven to school in McHenry County Sheriff’s Office squad cars.
Local businesses Eby Printers and Ultra Strobe Communications created 100 miniature squad cars adorned with McHenry County Sheriff’s Office decals, a replica of the squad car driven in Keltner’s funeral procession. The cars, which still are available, are sold for $100 each and all funds go to the family.
McHenry County Sheriff’s deputies regularly drive through the family’s Crystal Lake neighborhood checking in to see if they need anything. Deputies attend events with the family so they are not alone, Becki said.
Becki takes comfort in being in close contact with the sheriff’s office and spending time with their families. Keltner’s parents, Howard and Helen Keltner, have as well and have found support with other parents of fallen officers.
“I could not ask for a more supportive police department,” Becki Keltner said. “Every single one of them checks on me and gets me out of the house. … If I call, they help.”
To honor what would have been his 36th birthday, Becki threw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game.
In May, the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate adopted a resolution designating the interchange at Intestate 90 and Illinois Route 23 as the “Deputy Jacob Keltner Memorial Interchange.”
The family was invited to a private tour at the Lincoln Memorial in Springfield and were present during the reading of a proclamation for Jacob Keltner in the House of Representatives.
Helen Keltner said strangers “have come out of the woodwork” sending gifts and supporting her family. She takes comfort in this, a time when she feels the world “isn’t very pro-cop.”
“For me, it’s a renewal in humanity,” said Helen Keltner, who wears a silver charm on a chain around her neck with her late son’s thumbprint. “It’s been absolutely amazing, people who said ‘I knew your son, and I worked with him. … it’s been overwhelming.’ ”
Helen Keltner said learning to live without her son is like learning to live without a part of her body, or learning to be left-handed because someone cut off her right hand.
“Every day, I try to get up and move forward,” she said.
Howard Keltner, a retired chief of corrections for the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office, said March 7, the day he received the call his son had been shot, was “totally devastating.”
But, in those first few frantic hours, he began to experience a glimpse of the profound kindness that was to come.
When his wife called with the news, he was out on a shooting range in Kendall County instructing new officers. In his rush to get to Rockford, he got a flat tire. He quickly found a body shop and told them that his son had just been shot.
The shop quickly repaired the flat free of charge and Howard was on his way. DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick later brought pizzas to the shop to say “thank you.”
The Keltner family, including the deputy’s two younger brothers Luke Keltner, 31, and Zach Keltner, 33, spoke of the emotion they felt, seeing the endless line of squad cars with lights flashing, as they led Jacob’s body from a Rockford hospital to the funeral home in Huntley.
They each said they were moved by the thousands of strangers lining the roads, children and adults – all strangers – paying respects to their husband, son and brother, holding up signs with kind messages.
Those moments were only surpassed by the thousands more who attended the wake then stood in the freezing rain at the funeral held at Woodstock North High School. Police officers attended the services to honor the deputy from across the country, including Montana, New York, the Carolinas, Colorado, Boston, Vermont and Rhode Island.
There were so many who attended these somber events, the family said they could not see everyone. But each said they felt the comfort and support.
“I’ve described Jake’s passing and subsequent events as some of the most horrible but amazing days of my life,” said Luke Keltner, a banker. “To see the way the community rallied and supported my family was nothing short of amazing. It really went a long way to remind me that there is still good in the world and people need to help, want to help.”
He recalled the procession from Rockford to Huntley and watching as police had to push back “the literal sea of people” out of the streets.
“It was truly touching and very much appreciated,” Luke Keltner said.
At the end of the wake, he said, his hands hurt from all the hand shaking and hugging.
“It helped to know there were people going through this with us,” Luke Keltner said.
Zach Keltner, who followed in his brother’s and father’s footsteps and became a police officer, working as a sergeant in the fugitive warrants division for the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office, said the support has been “amazing.”
“It reinstills your faith in humanity,” he said. “One of the worst things you can imagine happened to your family, then you think, there are so many good people out there willing to help. Even the snowplows during the funeral were painted blue. It’s things like that you never imagine … people lining the streets … you would have never thought there would be that type of support for someone.”
Zach Keltner said he misses watching the Chicago Cubs with his brother and their banter during the games. He also misses the “stupid jokes.”
“The hardest thing to get over is having a stupid joke that you usually send your brother and he’s not there to send it to, ya know?”
He said his last contact with him was the night before he was shot.
“He texted me the night before a stupid joke, and it was late and I just responded with ‘LOL,’ ” he recalled. “I wish, looking back on it, wish [I] could have said more.”
Keltner is gone, but the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has a new member named in their fallen partner’s honor, a K-9 named Kelt.
Kelt’s handler, Deputy Jeremy Bruketta, said he’s been a ton of fun to work with and also has been productive, finding narcotics on searches and tracking down a fleeing suspect in a semi-trailer on his first search.
“I knew from the beginning he was going to be an awesome partner just as Jake was to all of us,” Bruketta said. “His natural skills, hard work ethic, along with his outstanding personality only mimic a portion of what Jake brought to the agency, his family and in my life. We are blessed the Keltner family has allowed the Sheriff’s Office to continue to have Jake’s dedication live through K-9 Kelt.”
Becki Keltner, who would have celebrated her 12th wedding anniversary with her husband Aug. 10, said in the recent years leading up to his untimely death that life was “perfect.”
“He was a cop,” she said. “But when I met him, he was just Jake and this is what he will always be to me.”