By Kelli Donlen
Three days after turning 15, Zachary Gonzalez was killed by a drugged driver while riding his bike with friends. The driver was found to have valium and cocaine in his system and had five cocaine pipes in his vehicle that all tested positive. His only concern following the crash was getting his “oxys” (OxyContin) out of his car.
Kelli Donlen, Zachary’s aunt and legal guardian, was notified of the crash by the police and told Zachary was killed on scene. They were not allowed to go to the site of the crash and struggled because they were never able to confirm for themselves that it was indeed Zachary. Kelli said she wanted to believe it was a mistake if she didn’t see her nephew for herself. It was Zachary’s friend who confirmed for her that it was indeed Zachary.
Shortly after, Kelli learned that the cause of the crash was placed on Zachary because he and his friends were riding their bikes on a non-pedestrian road. The impaired driver was charged with a DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced from one to six months in jail and was released on probation after only serving one month. Since his release, he has since been arrested for being drunk in someone else’s car and plead to Disorderly Practice; however, it was not a violation of his parole.
Kelli and her husband, who is the brother to Zachary’s mother, obtained custody of him at the age of 9. Kelli shared Zachary’s father was killed by a substance impaired driver when Zachary was three years old. When Zachary was 9 years old, his mother passed away from leukemia and since that time, Kelli described Zachary as quiet and keeping to himself, trying to make sense of all his losses. Shortly before turning 15, he was beginning to come out of his shell and enjoying life again. For his 15th birthday the family took a trip to Disney World and Kelli said they had a wonderful time. They returned home on Saturday evening and it was the next day, Sunday, January 19, 2014 that Zachary was killed.
The tears and heartache still have not gone away for Kelli, they never will. She struggles with the fact that the man who killed Zachary never should have been driving. She struggles with never having the chance to say goodbye. She does her best to remember all the good times with Zachary but finds herself always thinking of the “firsts” that Zachary will never experience such as prom, graduation, college, driving, marriage and having children. She tries to stay busy and loves talking about Zachary with others. Zachary was active on the wrestling team at his school and the family founded The Zachary Gonzalez Scholarship Program in his honor. Every year they will give out two, $1000 scholarships to students on the wrestling team. They gave out their first two scholarships this past April and plan to do so for as long as they can. The family also participated in their first WALK Like MADD event on September 19th in Philadelphia. Their team, Team Zach, had over 30 members and raised over $1000. Kelli is also working with Representative John Galloway on House Bill #1076 in Zach’s honor that asks for heavier charges in substance impaired crashes when a death of injury occurs. Kelli said she will never stop advocating for stiffer laws and honoring Zachary’s life by telling others about him.
On July 9, 2011, 7-year-old Xitclalli “Chilli” Vaszquez spent the day at the mall with her sister, cousin, and aunt. She got her hair cut so that she would look extra pretty for her 8th birthday that was just three days away. On their way home, a drunk driver hit the car she was riding in head-on. The doctors didn’t think she would survive—but she did. And her life will never be the same.
Chilli is now paraplegic, which means she has total paralysis of her lower body from the breastbone down.
As part of her healing journey, Chilli decided to write a letter to the offender, which her mother read in court. Here is the letter, as written by Chilli:
The offender in Chilli’s crash pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He’s eligible for parole in five years. Chilli is hoping that he writes her back some day.
Chilli and her family now work with MADD to help raise awareness about the dangers of drunk driving by speaking at MADD events across North Texas. Chilli also shares her story through the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) Faces of Drunk Driving campaign. Read more about Chilli and see the other Faces of Drunk Driving victims and survivors at facesofdrunkdriving.com.
On July 17, 1996, 13-year-old Mary Irwin spent the summer day playing with her best friends, Jesse and Jodi. When it was time for Mary to go home that evening, Jesse and Jodi’s older sister Tracey offered to drive her. So they all piled into their parents van.
On their way, they made a quick stop for snow cones. And after deciding what flavor to get, they hopped back in the van to head home. The next thing Mary remembers is sharp pain, sirens, and panic.
A drunk driver with a BAC almost three times the legal limithad sped across the center line and hit their car head on. Mary, Jesse, and Jodi were severely injured. And Tracey, who was driving the van, died before she made it to the hospital.
A stop for frozen treats on a warm summer night ended in hospital stays and a funeral, and changed many lives forever.
Mary was forced to grow up with the physical and mental scars of the crash – the scar on her face reminders her every day of that tragic night. She still experiences anxiety driving, especially at night.
Now, Mary volunteers with her local MADD office to help save lives. She volunteers at several victim impact panels each month, sharing her story to save lives. She also participants in vigils and monthly support groups to help provide the much needed support for other victims and survivors during their healing journey. She also supports MADD Missouri at their fundraising events, and is a team captain for “Team Tracy” at the St. Louis Walk Like MADD.
Mary works to help make sure no other children have to grow up living with the life-changing consequences of someone else’s choice to drink and drive. So that they can go get snow cones on a summer night without putting their lives in danger.
On December 17, 2004, Krystal Foster’s husband Chris and daughter Raven picked her up from work at 10:30 p.m. Thirteen minutes later, they were hit by an underage drunk driver.
The driver was high on drugs and had a BAC that was twice the legal limit. He was driving the wrong way on the freeway at 110 miles per hour – and hit their car head on. Krystal was not expected to live through the night. She was in a coma for the next 30 days. It was only after she awoke that she found out what happened...
Christopher, the love of her life, died on the way to the hospital. Krystal was still in a coma when they held his funeral.
Krystal’s daughter Raven suffered traumatic brain injury and shock. At only five years old, she saw her step-dad die in front of her and her mother critically injured. Krystal was also pregnant at the time of the crash, but the impact caused a miscarriage.
“When I woke up 30 days later to find out my husband was gone, I lost our child and my daughter had been hurt and without me or her step-dad, I was inconsolable,” Krystal said.
When Krystal woke up from the coma, she received the care package from MADD along with a “We Care Card.” “It was really a huge blessing to me,” Krystal says.
Krystal’s life was totally changed forever that night. And in the last 10 years since the crash, Krystal has received continued support from MADD to help deal with those changes. She has used MADD’s online victim services tools to connect with other victims and survivors. She found guidance to help her deal with survivor’s guilt and cope with her injury.
Krystal says that being a police dispatcher and helping victims of drunk driving crashes and working for the community, she never thought that she would be a victim. But we know that two out of three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime.
Krystal now volunteers with MADD Ohio and shares her story of loss and how she and her daughter Raven have defied the odds and overcame their injuries.
If you are interested in becoming a MADD volunteer to share your story or help further MADD’s mission, you can learn more or sign up at madd.org/volunteer.
On May 23, 2002, 20-year-old Ryan Smith was picking up his sister and two friends from a high school play. At 9:00 p.m., Ryan’s mother Lory Gleason heard the doorbell ring; it was her neighbor telling her that there had been a “serious accident,” and he recognized Ryan’s car.
“Ryan loved his car. He had it all fixed up,” Lory said. “He would work for hours on it in our garage. It was one of his hobbies.” But when Lory and her husband arrived at the scene, they found Ryan’s car mangled in the middle of the intersection.
As they watched rescue workers and paramedics try to get the kids out of the car, the police told Lory what happened. A drunk driver ran a red light and then tried to run from the scene. “This car accident now became a crash,” Lory says. “As there is nothing accidental about drunk driving.”
Lory’s daughter and two friends were seriously injured. Two hours later, Ryan passed away in the emergency room.
The driver who killed Ryan Smith was a four-time repeat offender with a suspended license. The night of the crash, his BAC was over three times the legal limit. He was convicted of 2nd degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, DUI with great bodily injury to multiple victims, hit and run and driving on a suspended license. He is now serving 27 ½ years to life.
“I thought I was going to die of a broken heart,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could survive another day.” But Lory made a choice…to face her grief head on and to make a difference in memory of Ryan. So she became a MADD volunteer, and she now leads the MADD California – Riverside County Chapter.