In December of 2012, Nancylee Salerno was returning home from holiday shopping when a 29-year old drunk driver entered an I-84 off-ramp traveling in the wrong direction. Several cars swerved to avoid the wrong-way driver, but Nancylee did not have enough time and her car was hit head-on. Nancylee was rushed to the hospital where she succumbed to her injuries a few hours later on December 23rd, just two days before Christmas. She was 61 years young.
Nancylee was a beloved wife, mother to five children, and grandmother to three. She was a long-time resident of Southington and is remembered fondly for her endless energy, giving spirit, and love for children. She was a fighter and proud breast cancer survivor. Nancylee was actively involved in the family businesses, Tops Market and Carmela Marie, when she wasn’t practicing her nursing profession serving her pediatric patients. Her family cherishes the time they had with her, but feel she was robbed of enjoying her retirement, traveling, and spending more time with her grandchildren, many of whom she will never meet.
Inspired to keep Nancylee’s memory alive and to support others affected by the crime of drunk driving, family members came to their first Tri-Town Walk Like MADD. The year after, more family members joined and their business became a sponsor and their passion for helping others grew. MADD Connecticut is honored to dedicate the 2017 Tri-Town Walk Like MADD in memory of Nancylee Salerno. The Salerno family has shown outpouring support from attending walk committee meetings to team participation and sponsoring and donating products to the walk. MADD Connecticut is grateful for the hard work and compassion the Salerno family has shown.
Here Nancylee is shown (left) with her husband John and daughter Emily Salerno Gould (right)
This is the second in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:
And here I sat, on those same hard, wooden benches in the Criminal Court Division Building of Cook County, that I had sat on several times before, and once again I faced the offender whom I had laid next to that initial night in the ER.
My opinion of the defendant wasn’t solely based on how she acted in court, but also on how she behaved when I wasn't present. In fact, the state trooper, who I recently talked to for the first time, told me that she was more arrogant and narcissistic than any other young lady he had interacted with in his career, and as a result he took a special interest in my case. He also noted that each time he saw her in court, he, the state’s attorney and the victim’s advocate would marvel at her lack of remorse.
This brings me to the moment of truth.
There I sat, with the 14 other people who had accompanied me on this day, including the Victim’s Advocate who had worked with me on my case since the beginning of the court process, all eagerly awaiting the defendant’s decision.
Would she finally take responsibility and plead guilty, or choose to go to trial, which would be many more months of court dates, waiting, and just plain agony?
I still had flashbacks, not of the actual crash, but of what my mind invented it would be like, despite having no actual memory of the incident. I have memory of moments before, and about 20-30 minutes afterwards. But, in trying to understand what happened, my brain fills in the blanks. I often imagine the point of impact, me seeing her car right before she crashed into mine, headlights blaring in my eyes, and words I know I probably said: "Oh my God......."
I often feel the same emotions I felt in the moment, even though I can't physically remember it. And that feeling is of complete and utter helplessness; there is nothing I can do to change what is about to happen. That emotion alone has haunted me for two years. Although I know God allowed what happened to occur for a reason, it doesn't change the trauma. My brain doesn't know the difference, even if my mind does. Because my body remembers what my brain won't allow me to.
These are the things I relive every time I step into the courtroom. Facing the defendant was like facing my attempted murderer. And worse, she had showed no humanity up until this point. She gave off the impression that she did not care. I wanted her to care about, and feel remorse for, what she had done, even more than I wanted her to go to jail. Because if she didn’t, I knew what had happened to me could easily happen to someone else.
When our case was called, the 4'10, black-haired, now 24-year-old woman walked swiftly with her lawyer to the stand. The judge presented the charges against her: Class 4 felony for aggravated DUI causing great bodily harm. He asked her how she wanted to plea. She conceded.
The sound of that word rang through the courtroom. I could barely hold my emotions. My sister, Nikki, squeezed my arm.
The judge then called my sister to the stand to read her victim impact statement. We sat there and listened, as Nikki recounted the fear that at any moment her sister, “best friend and soul mate” could die.
And, she discussed her, and her husband’s losses too. How she had shut down her practice as a psychologist for weeks to be with me at the hospital as much as possible, losing thousands of dollars of income.
Then it was my turn. I wiped my tears as I hobbled to the stand, trying to prevent myself from weeping.
I started to read. The defendant and her lawyer sat at a table inside of the courtroom, while our friends and families sat in benches that looked like pews just outside of the glass.
My victim impact statement was as real and honest as I could make it. I didn't hold anything back. To withhold even the most gruesome and personal details would deprive the offender of knowing exactly how her decision had impacted another person.
I even recounted how she had asked for permission to go to Las Vegas only a year prior. The judge granted her request, and she had posted several photos of her bare belly on Instagram with the caption, "Loving life."
I continued reading, "and while you are baring your perfectly intact belly, I am carrying around a scar and a poop bag on mine. You wrote, ‘loving life.’ At least if you are too ashamed to admit wrongdoing, you could have the human decency to not rub in the fact that you are loving life while I’m sitting here begging God to pee.”
I then detailed how a potential love interest before the crash told me he was no longer attracted to me afterwards. And I wondered if any man would love me despite my newfound disabilities.
I said, "And as happy as I am to have met, and will be marrying, the man of my dreams, I am equally sad. Equally sad that my wedding day will not be quite as I imagined it. I am sad that I can't do many of the things with Dennis that we both love to do.”
I could hear a murmur of weeping throughout my statement. Then Dennis lost it. I saw my future-mother-in-law now sitting next to him cradling his head while he wailed.
The defendant's lawyer wiped away his tears. I was equally surprised by the defendant’s reaction, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
When Cathy Dewitt, Cody’s mom, visualized her oldest son’s high school graduation she dreamed a time of joy, celebration, and planning ahead for the next stage of his life. Cathy was excited about the numerous possibilities for Cody; she never imagined that she would sit next to an empty chair covered with flowers and an unworn cap and gown.
Cody was a few months shy of graduation, and beginning the next chapter of his life. He had done the hard work—completed homework, paid attention in class, participated in projects and earned his degree. Yet due to someone’s choice to drink and drive, Cody did not live to see the fulfillment of all of his hard work and plans.
On December 24, 2011, Cody hugged his mother goodbye. He went to a friend’s house to enjoy the last of his winter break. Cody and his friends hung out in the friend’s garage and drank alcohol until 1:15 AM, when they were asked to leave. Cody was riding in a passenger seat when the driver lost control of the car and hit a tree. Less than a mile away from home, the impact of the crash killed Cody instantly.
Cathy describes the next year of her life as a blur. She shares few memories of the day that she learned her son was killed. She remembers Cody’s friends at her door telling her that he had been in a crash. She remembers arriving at the scene of a blocked off road and seeing the word “coroner” on the side of the vehicle. She remembers feelings of shock and haze, being physically present but mentally and emotionally absent. That shock stayed with her for an entire year, “I don’t remember the first year after the crash, by the second year I started to realize that the crash did happen, and by the third year I started to grieve”.
Cody was a country boy at heart. He loved cutting wood, hunting, camping, fishing and being outdoors. “He was so active and always had to be doing something. As soon as he turned 16 he got a job to help me out.” Cathy, Cody, and Ben (Cathy’s youngest son) were a team. Together they were one. They did everything with each other and for each other. Cathy recalls a conversation with Cody days before the crash, “he told me that he wanted to have fun for a little bit before he had to grow up.”
A night of fun and someone’s choice to drink and drive changed many lives forever. Cody died, the driver was sentenced to six years in prison, Ben lost his best friend and big brother, Cody’s girlfriend lost her first love, and Cathy struggles to live the rest of her life without her son.
Their stories are examples of the devastating consequences of drinking and driving. Cathy believes that this is a community problem for which we are all responsible to prevent. “It affects more people than you’ll ever know, EMT, hospital staff, bystanders, neighbors, friends, everyone”. Cathy wants young people to think of how many lives they touch every day. She shares her story in hopes that she can prevent others from experiencing the grief that she lives with daily. Cathy now volunteers as a speaker at Victim Impact Panels and is committed to help MADD fight for its mission of No More Victims®. Drinking and driving is a 100 percent preventable crime, but even one life lost due to underage drinking is unacceptable. There needs to be zero tolerance for underage drinking considering two out of three underage drinking deaths do not even involve a motor vehicle.
MADD encourages parents talk to their children about the dangers of underage drinking. Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash. MADD believes by taking proactive steps to protect our loved ones, especially our children, we can achieve a future of No More Victims®.
This is the first in a three-part series by Drunk Driving Victim Erin Rollins:
My entire body shook. My closest friends, family and I had waited for this day for months.
October 18, 2016 represented two years of waiting. Two years spent in-and-out of hospitals undergoing several surgeries, totaling six thus far, and hundreds of hours of physical and occupational therapy.
Everyone who had supported me hoped for a conviction and agreed the offender should go to jail. This agreement wasn’t due to unforgiveness; rather, the knowledge that forgiveness and justice are separate things.
I had forgiven her for the reckless decision that led to her driving at a BAC of twice the legal limit, traveling the wrong way on the expressway and hitting my car in a head-on collision. But I had trouble forgiving her complete lack of remorse for those two years.
I may not have physically died November 9, 2014, but I lost my life. The Erin I once knew no longer existed. My body was damaged, broken, ravaged, and sliced open several times. It left me with three long scars, one from right below my ribs to my groin area, one from the middle of my back to the tailbone and one stretching horizontally from my left rectus muscle to only a couple of inches away from the back scar.
I had lost so much—my car, job, independence and a possible love interest to name a few—with my body being the most devastating. But there was one thing that sustained me through it all: a prayer that I had prayed most of 2014.
I prayed for my best friend and father to return to Christ, to meet my husband and to make an impact with my life. After seven months, God answered.
On November 6, 2014, I took my little black-and-white Pomeranian for a walk, and asked God once again what it would take for the things I had prayed for to happen. This time, I heard God speak to me as if he was standing right next to me. He shared with me that something tragic needed to happen.
There I stood surprised, but without fear. So I made a request.
“OK, God, do whatever you need to do, just don’t take my life.”
On November 9, 2014, my life changed forever.
At approximately 1:29 am, the same drunk driver that I faced today struck me head-on.
I truly believe that had I not asked God to spare my life, I wouldn’t have made it.
On impact, my spine shattered. I sustained two burst fractures at L5 and S4, rendering me paralyzed—I couldn’t feel or move anything below the waist. I also suffered tremendous injury internally leading to holes in my bowels, colon and small intestine; a severed iliac artery, lacerated liver, fractured sternum, three broken ribs, and a concussion. My right foot broke in three different places, and the seatbelt tore my left rectus muscle in half.
The paramedics, state trooper and hospital staff told me repeatedly that I was lucky to be alive.
The surgeons explained that I needed two emergency surgeries and they needed to decide which to do first: repair the holes to my organs that would cause sepsis and kill me, or decompress my spine to prevent complete and permanent paralysis. Needless-to-say, they chose to repair my organs first.
The next day, the surgeons wanted to conduct an 8-12 hour spinal fusion. My family wasn’t comfortable with the pace they wanted to move because of how critical of a condition I was in. I was subsequently transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital two days later. There, they fused my spine, inserted two titanium rods and 10 screws, and removed as many shards of bone as possible that had taken residence in my spinal canal. The neurosurgeons said there was more damage than they anticipated, and they weren’t sure if I would ever walk again.
The third emergency surgery became necessary because the first one to repair holes in my intestines failed, and I became septic. The surgeons said had they not caught it in time, I would’ve died hours later.
I spent six more weeks in inpatient rehab learning to sit-up, catheterize myself, clean and change the colostomy that was formed during my sepsis surgery, and walk using a walker, while suspended in a harness that hung from the ceiling.
By discharge from rehab, I had survived the most difficult part of my life thus far, but I couldn’t have imagined the task of learning how to live once more with a completely different body and set of circumstances, as well as the emotional task of processing such profound trauma.
Additionally, for the first year and a half afterwards, I was too weak to attend court dates for the criminal case against the drunk driver who almost took my life. When it finally came time to read my victim impact statement in court almost two years post crash, I could never have anticipated what it would be like to face my offender, and the lesson I would learn on forgiveness that day.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
On August 14, 1997, I was able to witness the birth of my nephew, Damion Michael Henderson.
For the next 16 years, 6 months and 23 days, I watched him grow from an infant into a young man. He was a loving, caring person who dreamed of going to college and playing professional football.
Damion was like most other little boys. As a toddler he liked Blues Clues, then Pokémon cards (because his older brother liked them) and Spiderman.
I watched as he started school, graduated from Kindergarten, made new friends and turned into a “social butterfly”. I remember when was so excited when learned to read.
He was so thoughtful, if he was going to get a treat, he’d want one for his brothers too. He was just a down to earth kid who took life one day at a time. He was a friend to everyone he met.
One of the last Instagram selfies Damion took said “Dewey’s Pizza, then Gameworks. Amazing Day ahead”. Little did he know that on the way home from that outing his life would come to an abrupt end. That amazing day turned into a tragedy that we are all suffering with. The adult who had been entrusted to keep the kids safe (a friend’s father) decided to drink while on the outing with the boys (his son, Damion and another friend).
He then drove at rates in excess of 100 mph, losing control of the vehicle. Damion was ejected from the vehicle, dying a short time later as his two friends watched. The father tried to get rid of evidence, even stepping over Damion as he lay there dying. Our children deserve better than this.
Our family has not been the same since this tragedy. Holidays and birthdays are not the same. We now have to “visit” Damion at a gravesite. The High School Graduation that Damion would have attended in 2016 was a sorrowful event for us. His school placed a Graduation cap, gown and flowers on an empty seat where Damion would have sat. The school band played a song in tribute to him.
Not only did this affect our family, but the driver’s family, the other friend who witnessed this along with the many other people who stopped to help at the crash scene as well as all of the many friends Damion had.
Our hearts go out to everyone who has endured the tragedy of losing someone to the senseless act of drunk or drugged driving and our hope is to end these tragedies. Kids shouldn’t have to worry that the person taking them for a ride may end up killing or hurting them.