Police officer copes with daughter’s death
By Taylor Telford
INDIANAPOLIS — For over 25 years, the officer patrolled for drunken drivers, stopping swerving cars, giving sobriety tests to the whiskey-breathed and glassy-eyed.
Daniel Shragal, 48, knew the stakes. After seeing thousands of crashes, he knew the shattered glass and mangled frames were nothing compared to the human wreckage — the lives lost and the loved ones left behind. Every drunken driver he pulled over meant a possible tragedy averted.
Despite all the strangers he saved, there was nothing he could do to stop the driver who killed his daughter.
Now he lies awake at night.
“I wish that my phone would ring, and that it’d be her on the other end,” Shragal said.
Shragal didn’t become a cop to catch drunken drivers.
Raised in a small farming town in Illinois, he said he tired of the quiet.
At 23, he joined the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and found himself assigned to the city’s old north side. Every night felt like living in a television show. He got paid to chase people in cars and on foot, to be a hero and catch the bad guys. He joked with his fellow officers that this was the only job where you could legally drive around with a backseat full of hookers and a trunk full of drugs.
“They had to force me to take time off,” Shragal said. “Being at work was just so much more fun than being home.”
After a few years, he transitioned into working DUIs. Initially, he was fascinated by the technical elements of the job. He liked the field sobriety tests — the huff of the breathalyzer and the dead giveaway of an eye that can’t stop twitching or track an index finger.
Out in the field, his compassion set him apart. He lost count of the number of people he arrested who turned around to shake his hand, while still wearing handcuffs.
He said he tried never to treat the people he pulled over like criminals unless they gave him a reason to.
“I try to talk to every person I pull over the way I’d want another officer to talk to my sister if she were the one in the driver’s seat,” Shragal said.
If they accused him of treating them like criminals, his first question was always the same.
“Did you set out tonight to have too much to drink?”
The answer was always no.
Some drivers would share their stories with him, their faces lit by his flashlight as they spoke of the forces that pushed them over the edge: break-ups and break-downs, deaths in the family, lost jobs.
“I try to stop them before they murder someone, because it is murder,” Shragal said. “Always has been. Even before Kirstin.”
In August, Kirstin, 22, and her 14-month-old son Orion were headed to a family dinner in Dayton, Ohio, when a drunken driver ran a stop sign and careened into her driver’s side door. Orion survived. Kirstin did not.
Shragal took every measure he could to protect his home and his children, even when they were too young to grasp the dangers their father faced nightly. Alarm systems and motion-sensor lights were the first line of defense at home, along with a German Shepherd named Archie, the family’s fiercest protector.
The older his children grew, the more they came to understand the perils of their father’s job. They knew him coming home the next morning was not necessarily a guarantee.
Shragal never worried about his kids putting themselves in dangerous situations. Mostly, he worried about them being casualties of someone else’s poor decisions.
“Of course that’s exactly what happened,” he said.
In 2011, Shragal switched from DUI to the financial crimes unit in the organized crime branch. He was too old for the rush now. He’d had his fill of car chases and fatal wrecks and coming home at 5 a.m.
Sometimes on the weekends, he’d volunteer for a shift manning DUI checkpoints. He still felt called to save people from themselves.
Shragal was working checkpoints on Aug. 22. He’d been on break, stopped at a roll-call center to use the bathroom. He doesn’t like to use public restrooms when he’s wearing his gun.
He was standing in the center’s parking lot with some fellow officers when his phone rang. On the other end, his ex-wife was screaming.
When Kirstin was small, Shragal tucked her into bed each night. In his uniform, he’d kiss her on the cheek and sing, “You are my sunshine.”
When he thinks of her now, he sees her with her cousins, making up skits, mini-horror movies and choreographing dances to NSYNC songs. He thinks of her soft spot for candy — Ring Pops and Nerds and candy necklaces.
As Kirstin looked after her younger siblings, Shragal came to realize what a natural caregiver she was. She never wanted to be anything specific when she grew up, except a mother.
She was 20 when she called late one night. He thought something was wrong.
At first his daughter made nervous small talk, but he could hear in her voice something was coming.
She told him she was pregnant. For a few moments, he was silent. Kirstin thought her father was angry. Instead, he was beaming and stifling his tears.
“You’re too young to be a mom,” he told her. “But I know you’ll be a great one.”
An hour before she was killed, Kirstin made a video to share with her friends and family on Periscope.
In it, she grins and jokes about her unruly dark hair.
“I have no idea what is going on with my hair,” she says, midsentence. She reaches back to fiddle with her bun, raising her eyebrows comically. “It is so gross. Anyway, that has nothing to do with what I was talking about.”
She speaks of the significance of fleeting moments of interaction, how even strangers can affect each other’s lives for the better.
“Try to impact people’s lives, because you never know when and if someone might need it,” she said. “They might not need it then, but if it’s powerful enough, they’re going to remember it.”
The video ends with Kirstin’s toothy smile and goodbye, as she signs off for an evening with her family.
“We’re about to go to dinner,” she says. “My father-in-law is coming into town, and we’re going to go eat some food.”
After she turned the camera off, Kirstin strapped Orion into his car seat for the last time. She drove her car while her husband Andrew Burton and his father followed in a used BMW convertible. Their party was heading to the sports bar where Andrew worked when he and his father stopped, thinking the BMW had a flat tire. Kirstin drove on with Orion.
There was nothing wrong with the car, Andrew discovered after a few minutes. He and his father resumed their trip, only to slow and then stop at signs of a wreck a little down the road.
Andrew saw a throng of people, yelling and running through the street. He could see the cars ahead: Kirstin’s Hyundai Elantra, crunched around a tree, and the Ford F-150 that hit her.
Andrew got out and ran toward his wife and son, but it was too late.
Before her car had even stopped skidding, Kirstin was gone.
Moments after the wreck, the driver of the F-150 tried to flee. Bystanders held him down until the police arrived. Later at the hospital, he consented to having his blood drawn. His blood alcohol content was well over the legal limit.
Others who witnessed the accident got Orion out of his car seat, tearing off their T-shirts to try to stanch the bleeding from his head.
In the wreck, Orion’s arm was broken in two places. His skull was fractured, the left side of his brain bruised.
Afterwards, investigators came to Dayton Children’s Hospital, where doctors were helping Orion. They asked Shragal if he wanted to see the scene of the accident, but he declined. He’d already been on-site at thousands of drunken-driving crashes. He couldn’t bear to see the one that killed his daughter.
It’s been a little over two months.
“I’m still having some rough nights,” Shragal said.
He can’t sleep, and if he does, it’s fitful.
He remembers watching her grow up — applauding at her ballet recitals, taking her to see “The Wizard of Oz” and hearing her sing and tease her brother.
Some nights, he is trapped in the moment he got the phone call, when he dropped to his knees on the pavement and wept. His heart thumps too fast when he thinks of her injuries, what she might have endured, even in a split-second.
He thinks of her funeral, with Ring Pops tucked into the flower arrangements and a police escort to the cemetery. He knows she would have loved that.
Shragal hasn’t worked a DUI checkpoint since the night she was killed, but he wants to go back.
He’s scared he won’t be able to keep Kirstin out of it. That the drunks will gripe at him, saying his flashlight in their window or his cuffs on their wrists are ruining their night.
“Really, you son of a bitch,” Shragal fears he might say. “I’m ruining your night? Someone just like you killed my daughter.”
“I never want to be that person,” Shragal said.
His supervisor suggested he always have another officer with him if he ever has to do an investigation. That way he’ll have someone to lean on to keep him balanced if he needs it.
Meanwhile, his son Cooper wants to follow him into the force. Shragal is encouraging his son to be a firefighter instead. He doesn’t want his son to have to see the things he’s seen. He thinks the current attitude toward law enforcement is too hostile; if he was faced with starting a career as an officer now, he thinks he’d choose a different path.
But this is the job he chose, and he knows he has to go back.
He’s taking this week off work to give himself a chance to breathe, to prepare. There’s a checkpoint after he comes back. Maybe then.
He knows he’ll see her face at every fatal crash site, but he doesn’t want anyone else to bury their child.