GALESBURG — Tyler Smith loved being on a team.
And once he set a goal, he pursued it with laser focus.
Those were the things Sandy Halsne remembered about her son just days after he died far away from his boyhood home of Rochelle and even farther from his brand-new home at the San Jose Police Academy in California.
According to the initial reports from a Galesburg Police Department investigation, the 23-year-old Smith was found unresponsive just before 7 p.m. Saturday in the bottom of Cedar Fork roughly 75 yards east of Academy Street.
Investigators believe Smith left a local tavern at around 11:30 p.m. Friday and was not seen again until he was spotted in Cedar Fork on Saturday evening.
An autopsy conducted Sunday revealed the cause of death as drowning, and the report said Smith suffered no trauma and foul play is not suspected.
Toxicology reports are expected in four to six weeks. Knox County Coroner Mark Thomas said he has not developed a narrative to explain why Smith was in Cedar Fork or what led to his drowning in an estimated 3 inches of water.
For Halsne, the grief of a mother with a dead son is made worse by not knowing what happened.
“Of course there are rumors and assumptions,” Halsne said. “It just kills me because Tyler was a kid who was always focused.
“He worked so hard for his goals — he just worked and worked and worked. He had goals from the time he was a kid — he knew he wanted to be in the military, and he knew he wanted to be in law enforcement.”
Smith played football for the Rochelle High School football team, where he found a social structure he loved.
“Tyler loved being a teammate. I think he really thrived in the structure, and he cherished the camaraderie with the guys he played with,” Halsne said.
“I think that’s a big part of what he wanted with military and as a police officer.”
Smith graduated from Rochelle in 2014 — but not before he enlisted in the Army National Guard in December 2013.
While serving in the Army National Guard, he attended Western Illinois University. He graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice and a minor in homeland security.
“Tyler was a good student. I keep saying he worked hard — but it’s true,” Halsne said. “He had such clear goals and such focus.”
Several members of Smith’s Army National Guard unit echoed Halsne.
“Tyler was a hard worker. You didn’t have to know him very well to see that he was serious and determined,” wrote one member of the unit. “He was a good soldier. He showed that with his actions, with his willingness to work.”
The good soldier had other goals. Not long after graduation from WIU, he applied to the San Jose Police Academy. He was one of 50 selected out of roughly 5,000 candidates.
“Tyler was funny. He wanted to live in California, he wanted the weather and the ocean. So he applied. It was his plan, and he just followed through,” Halsne said. “He lived out there for part of this summer, preparing to become a police officer.
“He set that goal, he worked, and he accomplished it. I have to tell you, it was almost easy being Tyler’s mom. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t motivated.”
Halsne said that on Friday, her son drove from Rochelle to Macomb to spend time with friends in his National Guard unit and finish up details of his transfer to California.
“He planned to stay in Galesburg with a friend from drill,” Halsne said. “I just have no idea how he ended up where he was.”
Cedar Fork is a concrete canal that acts as a giant stormwater ditch and runs northeast to southwest through Galesburg and runs parallel to the BNSF railroad tracks.
Halsne cannot fathom her grief or how her son died.
“None of it makes any sense,” she said. “Why he would be off alone and where he was — I just can’t wrap my mind around any of it.
“It hurts. People make assumptions. But Tyler didn’t do drugs. He didn’t do thoughtless things. He always had his goals in mind.”
It is the life her son won’t live that is Halsne’s greatest source of grief.
“I feel bad. No parent should outlive a child,” Halsne said. “That’s, well, obvious.
“But the grief is knowing all the things he wanted for himself, how he wanted to be a part of a team and help others.
“Tyler talked to me about marriage and having a child. He wanted to be a father — he said he knew he wanted that. He wanted to be a coach, to work with other kids. He hoped for a wonderful life. And he was willing to work — to do whatever it took — to earn the things he wanted.
“I’m grieving for what was taken away from my son.”