When Jessica Dunbar saw a group of police officers walk into the restaurant where she worked, a strange feeling washed over her. The waitress sensed that something was wrong and soon discovered that her gut instinct was correct. What she did next left the cops stunned.
Dunbar works as a server at the Red Robin at Polaris Fashion Place mall in Columbus, Ohio. She’s the daughter of a retired policeman who spent many years employed as an officer for Blendon Township. Dunbar is also a mother herself.
On April 10, 2016, the state capital was rocked by a terrifying incident. The SWAT team was called upon to issue a felony warrant to a man suspected of being involved in an arson blaze that had occurred the previous day. But when they went to confront him at his home, tragedy struck.
The suspect, Lincoln Rutledge, who was 44 at the time, shut himself into his building and refused to come out. He then fired a gun into an armored SWAT vehicle parked outside. Officer Steve Smith was hit during the stand-off and was rushed to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in a critical condition.
Two days later, it was announced that Smith had died, making him the 54th member of the Columbus police force to be killed in the line of duty. Coincidentally, the officer was also 54 years old, and he’d been working for the Columbus Division of Police for 27 years. He left behind a wife and two grown-up children, Brittany and Jesse.
Columbus Chief Kim Jacobs shared the heartbreaking news and said Smith would be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues. “We’ve lost a family member. The city lost a true hero, a true guardian and protector,” she told WCMH Columbus. “He loved life. His legacy is living life to its fullest. He lived that 100 per cent, 100 miles per hour.”
And Officer Kevin Wheeler, who became his friend almost 20 years earlier after they worked together in the aviation unit, also paid tribute. “He would take the shirt off his back for anybody in the unit, for anybody he knew that he could help out even outside the unit,” he said. “The way he lifted the team in bad times and brought all of our spirits up, it was just unbelievable.”
Smith was laid to rest on April 19, with the funeral taking place in Westerville. Hundreds of uniformed cops from his and other departments arrived to pay their respects to the fallen hero. Smith was honored with a bagpiper, riderless horse, gun salute and helicopter flyover.
Following the emotional ceremony, a group of Smith’s co-workers decided to get something to eat. So they headed to the nearby Red Robin for a casual meal. It was there that they encountered Dunbar, who had an immediate sense of concern.
The nine cops were sitting in Dunbar’s section and she asked them how they were doing. “One guy said, ‘you know, it’s always a rough day when you gotta put a brother in the ground,’” she told WCMH Columbus. “Right after that, I was like, ‘I gotta do something right.’”
The young mother had heard about Smith’s story. And she pondered over what she could do to make the officers’ day a little bit better, after they had placed their orders. Then, as the bereaved cops tucked into their food, she came up with an idea.
When they asked for the check, Dunbar gave it to them. But instead of presenting them with their $123 bill, she placed the check face down. On the front, the charge was $0, and on the back she had scrawled a touching message for the group.
“Officers, your bill is on me today,” the note read. “I can’t imagine the day you all have had, let alone what you go through every day. I hope your days get better. So much respect. #WeSeeYou #PoliceLivesMatter #RIPOfficerSmith.”
Lt. Jeff Shelton from the Wellington Police Department was one of the cops at the restaurant and admitted that they couldn’t have predicted what Dunbar did. “It really touched all of our hearts,” he told WCMH. “We weren’t expecting to be treated any different than normal, and just for somebody to come and do that, it really made our day.”
Shelton added that the act of kindness made the group even more emotional. “We were crying all day, and then you got a bunch of guys and female officers in there crying,” he divulged. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place by the time we were done.”
Dunbar revealed that she was inspired to help because Smith’s story reminded her of her own family, specifically the difficult situations that her father put himself through in his line of work. “He left behind a wife and kids,” she said of Smith. “It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my dad.”
And she added that she was extremely touched by how grateful the officers were for her thoughtful gesture. “People look up to them,” she said, referring to the police. “To have them shake my hand and say ‘thank you’ to me, that was incredible.”
Dunbar’s actions were shared on the Ohio Going Blue community Facebook page and the post soon received over 10,000 likes. The server and her family were invited to be guests at the Lorain County Police Memorial. And commenters were quick to call the young woman “awesome” and praise her for her good deed.
“Thank you for the support to our many brave and wonderful officers,” Jeff Hughes wrote. Another commenter, Julie Zielinski-Morgan, added, “My husband was one of the officers at the Polaris Red Robin with the group. They stopped there to eat after the funeral. He called to tell me about it right away. Deeds like this are never expected but always appreciated. Sincere thank you from a police wife.”
Dunbar revealed during an appearance on Fox & Friends with Shelton that her former police officer father “was very proud” of what she did. And she admitted that the moment she told him was one of the only times she had seen him cry. The young mom explained that she was pleased to make a small difference in the officers’ lives. “I just wanted to do something nice,” she added to WCMH Columbus. “You can’t put a dollar amount on making somebody happy.”