Justin waiting in the driver’s seat of a state trooper patrol car …
Justin kissing girlfriend Brooklyn Wesley at the altar …
Justin in his trooper uniform cheering when little brother, Blake, makes the varsity football team at Jacksonville High. …
But in a moment Sollohub’s family draws away from the dream. The pictures of his future fade quickly with the memory of the fallen Anniston officer Wednesday: intubated, bleeding from the head as doctors prepare him for a flight to Birmingham’s UAB Medical Center.
“I knew it then when they were bagging him,” said Jeniffer Morris, Sollohub’s mother, as she described watching Regional Medical Center personnel put tubes down his throat. “He was gone.”
Sollohub was pulled from life support at UAB at 3:04 p.m. Thursday. Just more than 24 hours earlier, the 27-year-old was shot in the head while on routine patrol. The man suspected of shooting him, Joshua Russell, was captured after an eight-hour manhunt and remains in custody on capital murder charges.
Morris said she was at her office at the Department of Human Resources in Anniston when she heard the wails of ambulances racing by.
“Of course I hear ambulances all the time and I never think anything about them,” she said. “But then I got a call from my husband.”
Byron Morris, Sollohub’s stepfather and a longtime Alabama state trooper, had learned Sollohub had been shot. As the Morrises struggled to find out more about Sollohub’s condition, they called his sister, Stephany Sollohub, and his girlfriend to tell them the news.
Stephany, 25, was out for a run in a Jacksonville neighborhood when her mother finally reached her.
Wesley, a dental hygienist in Oxford, stepped away from her patient and checked her cell phone after it buzzed multiple times. When she saw the missed calls from Jeniffer Morris and Anniston investigator Emily Randles, she knew something was wrong.
“I just left my patient there,” said Wesley, Sollohub’s girlfriend of two years. “I knew something wasn’t right.”
When Stephany eventually learned her brother had been shot in the head and was airlifted to Birmingham, she sped to Kitty Stone Elementary to pick up 11-year-old Blake Morris, the youngest of the family.
“When I found out it was in the head, I felt like I needed to go get Blake,” she said. “I didn’t want him hearing anything from anyone else.
“I said, ‘Justin got hurt at work.’ At one point, Blake told me, ‘If I have to do all this makeup work because Justin scraped his knee, I’m going to be mad.’”
The gunshot wound to the head was fatal. The lead doctor working his case was “very thorough” in explaining Sollohub was brain dead, Jeniffer said.
The close-knit family sat in their Jacksonville living room recounting the whirlwind tragedy of the past day. But instead of speaking with choked voices and quivering lips, Sollohub’s family members were composed in their recollections.
There were even smiles and the occasional giggle when they thought about how Sollohub — a center-stage kind of guy — would be basking in the attention if he were still there.
“Justin was doing what Justin wanted to do,” Jeniffer said. “There are no words that can describe him; he had more life than anyone else. He was exhausting.”
The vibrancy of his “exhausting” life helps them to understand his death.
They describe Sollohub as a big-hearted adrenaline junkie who wanted to save the world. He prided himself on winning every foot chase at work, Wesley said, and backed down from little — so much so, he was set to emblazon his arm with the words: FEAR NO EVIL; The other arm already bore: IN GOD I TRUST.
“He taught me not to fear things,” Wesley said. “I told him he didn’t lose this last chase either. It just ended in a way we didn’t expect.”
But through his bravado and ink, there was a soft side. And that soft side ultimately led him to be the outstanding cop he was, his mom and stepdad said.
“He wanted to solve things all the time for the kids,” Byron Morris said. When asked what kids he was referring to, the state trooper replied: Any kids.
Setting an example for local youngsters who didn’t have enough role models in their lives was a passion of Sollohub’s, Jeniffer said. For that reason, he always showed up at Blake’s football and baseball games.
He spent time talking to the kids while he was there at the practices, Jeniffer remembered. He’d lecture them about doing well in school and staying out of trouble. Sollohub even went so far as to attend lunch a couple of times at Kitty Stone, partly to spend time with his little brother and partly to set the example he promised he would.
Those lunches were just a small example of how Sollohub went the extra mile. They’re just a small example of what made him an outstanding cop, his co-workers said.
“When we hired him, you could tell he just had that special quality,” Anniston Capt. Richard Smith said. “That young man did a very good job. He knew, he really knew the people he interacted with on a daily basis, and he really believed he could make a difference.”
Sollohub, a patrol officer, frequently contacted investigators with tips and information about how different residents were connected or related to each other, Investigative Sgt. Josh Doggrell said. Nearly every morning before Sollohub’s shift started, he’d visit with investigators to ask them about specific cases they were working on or suspects he should be on the lookout for.
“He was special,” Smith said.
And his family said Sollohub knew what he was risking every day he pinned on his badge. Sollohub made the Special Response Team after only three years on the job. It was an honor that came with an even higher risk, Wesley said, because it meant Sollohub assisted in high-intensity drug raids among other things.
Wesley and his mother remembered a life-threatening situation Sollohub’s role as an SRT member put him in just last week. During a raid, Sollohub entered a room to find a suspect reaching for a gun, Wesley recalled. Fortunately, Sollohub drew his weapon faster and the man surrendered.
Sollohub called to tell his mother about it.
“‘Mom, I almost killed a man today for the first time,’” Jeniffer remembered him saying.
The call Jeniffer got after Wednesday’s foot chase wasn’t from her son.
He lay in the bed late Wednesday night unable to tell her about his day. UAB personnel kept Sollohub on life support until Thursday afternoon when his organs were harvested for donation.
But he looked peaceful lying there, Jeniffer said.
He looked normal, added Wesley.
“He looked so good last night,” Jeniffer said. “His color looked good. He looked like he was resting.”
That image of her son, peaceful and sleeping, has been a powerful antidote to what she witnessed at RMC.
“I know he was OK,” she said. “Justin is at peace. If you saw him last night, you would know that, too.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.