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Voices of Victims: Erin Rollins Part 3

This is the third in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:

I looked the defendant dead in the eyes and read the closing portion of my victim impact statement. "Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse has been the hardest for me to work through.  But I want you to know that I forgive you even though I don't think you deserve it. Because, then again, Jesus forgave me and I didn't deserve it."

I stepped off of the stand feeling empowered, yet emotionally exhausted at the same time. I slowly made my way back to my seat.

I braced for the defendant to decline to say anything.  Weeks leading up to the final court date, I had prepared myself that even if she didn't acknowledge what she had done, my pain remained valid.

I knew I needed to forgive completely regardless of the outcome.  Through my healing journey, I had believed a lie that told me that I needed her to feel remorse to validate my experience. And believing this challenged my ability to move forward.

Holding onto resentful feelings over the offender’s lack of remorse threatened the joy I had in God’s answer to my specific prayers, and the hope I had in Him to use something terrible for good. Focusing on what the offender wasn’t doing distracted me from being at peace with God and myself, and trusting that my pain had a very important purpose. 

Coincidently only a week prior, the minister of my church gave a sermon on forgiveness. I learned that wholehearted forgiveness means letting go of resentful feelings towards someone, whether they deserve it or not.  It does not mean forgetting what happened, or excusing the defendant’s actions. It meant freeing myself from the bitterness that tried to assimilate control over the defendant, her choices and the situation. It also meant giving myself permission to move on with life, to fully love my husband-to-be, and to extend myself the grace to accept the newfound changes to my body.  By forgiving the offender completely, I also gave myself room to mourn my losses, but not stay there.

I was finally able to let go of the last piece that I had been holding onto for those years. Even if she didn't apologize, I had released her, and myself, from feelings of resentment for her lack of remorse.

Then the impossible happened. The defendant got up and turned to look at me. She began to weep, and with what seemed to be an unpremeditated statement, she said, "I am not going to stand here and make excuses for what I did. All I can say is that I messed up and that I am so sorry, Erin, for you and all those who have come to support you."

Through tears, she continued. "You are right Erin, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you will never have your life back, and for that I am so sorry."

The judge told her to go with the officer. Unafraid and feeling compelled, I jumped up, and walked as quickly as possible through the glass door into the courtroom.

"Wait," I exclaimed. "Jeanne, can I hug her?"

The state's attorney replied. "You'll have to ask her."

The defendant turned towards me. I approached her.

"Can I hug you," I asked vulnerably.

"Yes," she replied. We embraced.

The courtroom lost it. My mom and her mom sobbed loudly and When I walked back through the courtroom to the benches, I noticed that my mother had rushed over to her mother and they were embracing. My family and I then hugged every other member of her family.  Everyone who had come with her all said they were sorry. Her lawyer walked up to me, hugged me with tears in his eyes and apologized. Dennis later told me that her lawyer had shaken his hand, and told Dennis that "he had been wrong."

According to my sister and everyone in the audience, there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom, including the officers and another person waiting for her case to be called. The judge quickly exited the stand after seeing us embrace, and with a crack in his voice, asked for a recess.

In that moment, I was freed in so many ways. Freed because I had said what I had intended to say, and was able to share the story that for two years I had kept pent up inside.

But when I look back now, I have no regrets. Did I call this tragedy on myself because I gave God permission to do what he thought fit, and glorify himself? No. But I did get what I asked for.

Forgiveness is a gift. I not only gave the offender the best gift before prison, I received many in return—the ability to enter marriage freed from the bondage of bitterness, and the freedom to extend myself the grace to accept what was lost and move on with life.

My physical demonstration of forgiveness turned out to be the most healing and powerful moment of my life.  I demonstrated God’s love to a stranger who didn’t deserve forgiveness, because God did that for me. 



MADD’s statement on faith and forgiveness:  MADD is an organization not related to any faith or denomination, we serve everyone regardless of their personal beliefs. 
We do recognize that faith can play a part in someone’s healing journey and wanted Erin to share how it played a part in her own, forgiveness can also very from person to person.  Many people find that forgiveness is something that they embrace or reject, MADD respects each person’s choices about their own healing journey which may or may not include forgiveness.  We thank Erin for sharing her own healing journey. 

Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.


Voices of Victims: Air Force Service Member Karen Mertes

February 7, 2007 was the day that forever changed Karen Mertes’ life path. Karen, a Lieutenant Colonel serving in the United States Air Force, was driving the speed limit on the interstate when she was struck from behind by a drunk driver traveling over 100 mph.

He had a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit and the crash resulted in both vehicles being totaled. The axle in Karen’s car snapped in half, and her vehicle’s undercarriage dragged creating sparks on the interstate for several hundreds of feet.

Karen remembers being horrified at the smell of burning rubber in her vehicle. “During this time which seemed like an eternity to me, as my life hung in the balance, I made a bargain with God. I promised God that if I were blessed to live, I would spend the rest of my life helping others.”


Karen survived the crash but sustained multiple brain bleeds and was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her memory, cognitive functioning, and personality were all impacted. Karen remembers looking at herself in the mirror and no longer recognizing who she was. She underwent months of physical therapy, and after rehabilitation returned to work.

Karen holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and two Master’s Degrees in Business Administration, and Cost Estimating & Analysis. Her education and professional attributes provided her with the required experience to excel as a Lieutenant Colonel.

When Karen returned to work, she found that she could no longer perform the complex memory-driven cognitive tasks that her job required. She had to embark towards a different direction in her life, and though devastated that she had to leave a career that she loved and worked endlessly for, she made a commitment to use her story for others. 

“In every situation we have a choice, to stay a victim or become victorious despite all odds. I chose to be better, not bitter.”


The driver that made the choice to drink and drive and injured Karen, continued to make choices that harmed her. Before the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) results came back, he fled the state. The news was heart breaking. As she continued to face new challenges head-on and find ways to embrace her TBI, the person that caused so much pain and suffering chose to flee his problems and not be accountable for his actions. 

Karen lived years thinking that he would never be punished, and that the criminal justice system was not looking for him or making the case a priority. She became her own advocate and it was through building relationships in the community that the Sheriff’s Department reached out to the State Attorney General and worked with other law enforcement agencies to extradite the offender back to the State of Florida. Five years after the crash, justice was served.


Since the crash, Karen has become a professional speaker sharing her story of triumph through tragedy with thousands of people across our country, inspiring audiences to achieve their highest potential no matter what.  She is the founder of Fulfill Your Destiny, a nonprofit organization whose signature program awards ‘Business Builder Grants’ to entrepreneurs who have experienced life changing events of their own and desire to take their businesses to the next level. Karen continues to deliver on her promise and inspires others.

“I have come to own my TBI, I am determined not to be owned by it. My TBI has taken me to positive directions that I never would have gone. I found what most would have deemed obstacles have in fact become opportunities for different kinds of success.”


My Mother, My Hero

Kelli Willoughby's parents were hit by a drunk driver on Memorial Day 2003. Read her story and join her in remembering her mother this year:

Memorial Day is a day to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and although my mother was not in the armed forces, I honor and remember her, during this holiday.


On June 3, 2003, my parents were on their way to a friend’s house when they were hit head on by a drunk driver.  My father was driving their SUV, my mother was in the passenger seat.  The drunk driver, driving a semi, had passed out at the wheel and drifted into my parent’s lane on a curved bridge.


While my parents were out, I was babysitting my siblings. We had just ordered pizza and settled in for a movie, when I was called by the local Sheriff’s office.  They asked me to come to the scene of the crash, and when I showed up it like the end of the world to me.  All I could see were fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances.  They informed me that my parents were being airlifted to Tampa General Hospital. 

At two in the morning, my mother was going into her last surgery of the night.  She had severe open breaks on both legs and the doctors had a very difficult time stabilizing her enough to perform any kind of surgery on her.  When they finally got to operate, a tiny piece of tissue lodged into one of her blood vessels and stopped her heart for six minutes.  After about three weeks in the ICU, it was determined that she had no brain activity and according to her living will, we took her off life support.  Even though this was an act that she clearly wanted, giving up the desperate hope that she would open her eyes again and speak to me was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  A little over a month from the date of the crash, my beautiful, smart, wonderful mother, Rhonda Davis, died on July 11, 2003.


My father, a member of the United State Army, suffered injuries that he continues to battle through to this day.  His personal and professional life was shifted off course by someone else’s decisions.

 
I started this blog by referring to Memorial Day and its association with my mom.  Every year when Memorial Day comes we see countless pictures of heroes buried at Arlington National Cemetery, families laying wreaths at headstones, and faces of men and women who gave all to protect our country.  My mom was not a Soldier who died in Afghanistan or a Marine who was killed in Iraq.  However, she was my hero.  She was the person who made me who I am, who taught me right from wrong, and who loved me unconditionally. 

She was a dedicated military spouse who put her family above all else and who did her part to serve alongside my father.  She faced frequent deployments, frequent moves, and held our family together just the same.  Her final resting place is at Arlington National Cemetery, an honor she earned through her 23 years of being a military spouse.  Even though she is not a service member, I am proud that my mother, my hero, is forever among the greatest heroes of our nation.  On Memorial Day and every day, we should remember the brave souls who gave their life for our freedom, but I will also forever remember the bravest, strongest woman I have ever known.

Kelli Willoughby


Keeping Nancylee's Memory Alive

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)


Voices of Victims: Erin Rollins Part 2

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.

"Guilty."

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.


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