By Gus Ostrum
Character, dignity, cherished memories. These are words describing the man memorialized by a monument recently constructed by Bricklayers Union Local 5 and Ironworkers Local 399 along Route US 40 in Upper Pittsgrove Township. The monument is a memorial to Navy Ensign John Elliot, who was killed at the scene on July 22, 2000 by a drunk driver in a highly-publicized case that made national headlines.
A recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Elliot was driving home from Annapolis, MD, to New Jersey for his mother’s birthday when he was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver near Woodstown, Salem County. The man who killed Elliott had been arrested earlier in the evening and released to a friend.
According to news reports at the time, the driver of the vehicle that hit Elliot had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. He was arrested and taken to the State Police barracks. The State Police released him to a friend. Three hours later, he was driving the same vehicle that he had been stopped in earlier when he crossed the center line hitting Elliot head on. Both men were killed.
After burying their son, Bill and Muriel Elliott vowed to do everything they could so that no one else would have to face such tragedy.
“We are always grieving our son’s senseless death, but Muriel and I wanted to do everything in our power to bring some positive out of this,” said Bill Elliott in a recent interview. “We wanted to help prevent other families from experiencing our grief, and this was the best way to keep John’s memory alive.”
The Elliotts turned their efforts toward the legislative process to accomplish their goals. They convinced local legislators to pass John’s Law in 2001, requiring police to impound cars of suspected drunk drivers for up to 12 hours. A version of John’s Law has been passed on the federal level, and implemented by individual states in various forms.
At a dedication ceremony on May 16, all had glowing praise for the new memorial, but none more so than Navy Ensign John Elliott’s father Bill. “It’s a lot more than bricks and mortar,” he said. “This monument and the concept behind it will outlive us all.”
During the dedication ceremony, Richard Tolson, Director of Local 5, also praised the new monument. “It’s a wonderful feeling to come out here with our members and apprentices,” said Tolson. “This is just a great thing to be part of.”
The first phase of the memorial, the laying of bricks, was complete. The Bricklayers Union donated the materials and labor for the monument and Iron Workers Local 399 will build a rail around the structure. The materials for the monument were donated by EP Henry. The materials for the rail were donated by Shamrock Construction which will provide the fabricated sections for installation.
A monument had previously been erected at the site of Navy Ensign Elliott’s death that included a Cross, and this monument is a refurbished and expanded version of the existing structure.
“The Bricklayers Union has just done a tremendous job with building this structure,” said Local 399 Business Manager Rich Sweeney. “I’m proud of the efforts put into the monument by local unions and construction companies. This really hits home for me personally and for a lot of families who have suffered through these kinds of senseless tragedies. I’m also proud that the Ironworkers Union has played a role in this effort.”
Sweeney is a board member of the HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers founded in memory of Ensign Elliott by his father Bill in 2000. The campaign encourages people to become designated drivers and to toughen penalties for people who drive while under the influence. It was through the Campaign’s efforts that they were able to get John’s Law passed.
HERO stands for Human Education Resource Officer, a title Ensign Elliott obtained while at the Naval Academy. “During his young life, our son proved to be a well-respected mentor and teacher within the Navy, and the HERO Campaign is an appropriate extension of what would have been his life’s work,” said Elliott.
“I want to thank everyone in the unions and crafts trades for these wonderful efforts,” said Elliott. “This is a beautiful memorial to our son, and we know he would have appreciated the efforts of all the generous volunteers here to make this happen.”