Celebrating graduation with her mother, who worked late shifts to pay college bills, made this rite of passage a brilliant moment for Jayla Shelton.
“There’s this picture of the two of us chewing so hard,” said Shelton, who graduated magna cum laude from Jacksonville University in Florida. “That was probably one of the proudest moments of our life.”
But when it came to another mother-daughter milestone – Shelton’s wedding in September – her beloved mother, Tamara Clayton, wasn’t there.
Clayton, 55, was driving from the southern suburbs to a late shift at the US Postal Service near O’Hare International Airport at around 10 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2019, when bullets struck I-57 near Cicero Avenue and killed her.
More than two years later, the crime remains unsolved.
Shelton remembered a woman with a passion for family and fun who took care of her grandmother after heart surgery, didn’t say no to a conga line, and was always there for her daughter.
“She was the life of the party,” Shelton said. “She was really energetic.”
The two were friends too. “I’m a huge nerd and took her to one of my anime conventions,” Shelton said. In return, Clayton took her daughter on annual house music bus tours of Chicago, and they both loved roller-skating together.
In October 2018, to celebrate Clayton’s birthday, they took a trip to the Universal Studios theme park for rides and cotton candy, and “she still had enough energy to be part of a conga line at one of the restaurants,” recalled Shelton.
It was a break from a busy job where Clayton was constantly on his feet, lifting packages up to 70 pounds. “It has worn out her body,” Shelton said.
But the stability and salary that helped pay tuition for private schools and colleges kept Clayton on her late shift, despite concerns about crime on the way from her Country Club Hills home to work.
Shelton hit the road in college and embarked on a career as a recruiter to help her mother retire early.
Instead, Shelton planned her wedding without the spirited Clayton, and although her aunt was there to lead her to the altar, the loss overshadowed a happy day.
“We had memorials and things like that, but it was definitely tough.”
On the day Clayton died, she had one of those ordinary phone calls with her daughter that got special without realizing that they could never happen again.
Super Bowl advertisement. Shelton’s house search. Clayton is preparing for work tonight. Grandma’s health.
“I didn’t want to stay on the phone too long because I always felt bad when I took time to sleep,” Shelton recalled. “She never slept a full eight hours.”
With her mother’s death, she said, “You are really losing a part of yourself.”
Illinois lawmakers passed the Tamara Clayton Expressway Camera Act in July 2019 to install cameras that capture license plate footage to catch highway shooters.
The investigation into her death “remains open and ongoing,” officials said on Feb. 11 when they announced $ 12.5 million in funding for the technology.
“The tragic death of Tamara Clayton must not be forgotten and we must do everything we can to prevent further shootings on the highway,” Governor JB Pritzker said in a statement.
As of February 11, there have been more than 160 freeway shootings in Chicago and Cook Counties, with 17 fatalities as of last week, Illinois state police reported.
Without justice, it’s hard to find peace, Shelton said on Wednesday. “Peace is a really difficult thing, and to this day I can’t necessarily say I have until there is real change in Illinois, especially in the face of increasing violence,” she added.