Flashing red, blue and yellow lights from dozens of tow trucks parked in front of a Northland church illuminated the sky as friends and relatives joined together on the night before Thanksgiving for a fellow driver killed in a hit-and-run crash.
John “Johnny” Stewart, a 39-year-old man from Liberty, died late Sunday night while helping a woman whose car had broken down. Stewart and his truck were hit by another vehicle about 10:45 p.m. on northbound Interstate 35 near the North Brighton Avenue exit. Police said the vehicle that hit Stewart fled, and Stewart — a husband, a brother and an uncle to two nieces and four nephews, according to his obituary — was pronounced dead at the scene.
By Tuesday, the suspected hit-and-run driver was charged in Clay County Circuit Court with a felony count of leaving the scene of a crash. Stewart worked as a tow truck driver for more than 12 years, with most of that time spent with GT Tow Service, based in Smithville. Amy Gresham, co-owner of GT Tow Service, said she met Stewart through the business. He worked for them once before and quit, but came back and had been with GT Tow Service for about four years, she said.
“He’s just an awesome kind of guy,” Gresham said. “He was always really happy. He would do anything for anybody.” Gresham was among scores of people in the business from across the Kansas City area who came to honor Stewart in a candlelight vigil and to raise awareness to safety for tow drivers. Six years ago, Gresham said, she lost her teenage son in a similar incident and has since advocated for “move over” laws. Blake Gresham, 18, was killed on Aug. 27, 2012, when he was struck by a box truck while getting ready to tow a stranded vehicle on Interstate 35 near the Christopher S. Bond Bridge.
As two trucks held up an American flag and a lit-up cross Wednesday night, a message pleaded: “Move over for Johnny.” “We’re pretty close with all of our guys. It’s like a big family,” Gresham said. “These guys work together out here on the streets all the time. They might bicker and fight all the time, but when something like this happens, then they all come together and show their support.” Fighting back tears, she said Stewart is “going to be missed a lot.”
John Orfield, one of many drivers from other competing businesses who attended the vigil, said he met Stewart “about 10 years ago and he’s probably one of the best tow truck drivers out here.”
“No matter what, he was always there for you,” Orfield said. “He always had our back. He was always in a good mood. Always there to help. If you needed something, he’d be the first one to come out and help,” said another driver, Jay Porter. “We might be competitors,” said Porter, who works with S&S Road and Tow, “but in the end and as you can see, we’re all family.”
To help his family cover funeral costs, a memorial account has been opened at Citizens Bank & Trust, according to the family’s attorney. Anyone interested in donating is asked to make checks out to Brooke Stewart, Stewart’s widow, and send it to GT Tow Service, 111 James St., Smithville, Mo., 64089 or Citizens Bank & Trust, 100 N.E. Hwy. 92, Smithville, Mo., 64089.
John “Johnny” Stewart of GT Tow Service in Smithville, Mo., was struck and killed while working a roadside rescue along Interstate 35 in Kansas City, North, late Sunday. Submitted photo