To all the patrol officers, detectives, DUI task force officers…
From Susie Spoolstra-Kelley
Zachary Spoolstra’s “Momma”
I first want to thank you for reading my story, and I want to thank you on behalf of my experience with all of the officers that I have come into contact with because of the loss of my Beautiful Child for all that you do every day. I pray for you all as you go out into this world where it seems the regard for life has plummeted and the selfishness has grown. May you think of my story, and the countless others that you have come in contact with when you pull over…yet another impaired driver. May you have the strength and the wisdom to continue to arrest. help to impart consequences to these individuals that make this fateful choice, and may you be able to continue STRONG in this fight to help our roads to be safer for our children, our families and our grandchildren.
I buried my first-born son the day before Mother’s Day, three years ago this May 6th, 2021. Since losing Zach, there have been a myriad of agonizing emotions and unsettling experiences in the aftermath of his tragic death. My story isn’t comfortable or easy to read, but it is what has happened, and I feel it has become my mission to tell my experience of surviving after my precious son, Zachary Spoolstra, was killed by a drunk driver. This has been an awful journey—one that I would not wish on my worst enemy.
Hearing the news from the police officer that my son had been hit and killed by a drunk driver felt like a bullet through my heart. I sank to the floor, my body losing all its strength, my lungs emptying in a loud painful groan, my stomach churning with nausea, my hands cradling my face as I sobbed, trying to keep this horrible reality out. I attempted to stand but my body was a pile of skin and bones on the floor. I wanted to get up and to run— away from this horrible news and from this awful pain that pierced my heart and soul to its core. I knew I could not escape it and I grieved as only a mother who has lost a child would understand. I knew this pain, this sorrow, this emptiness, this Zach-shaped hole in my heart was going to be a part of me for the rest of my life.
Can this be real? My mind repeated over and over as I participated in all the immediate decisions and events that follow losing a loved one. Casket, flowers, headstone, funeral, cemetery, and a whirlwind of other decisions all had to be made. There were brief moments of solace when hundreds of friends and family attended his funeral to honor his life and memory, a testament to the impact my son had on those around him. But unlike many who were able to get their “closure” to this horrid event and emotionally put it all to rest, the agony I have been forced to endure had only just begun.
This next section is what I believe will be so helpful to all of you in law enforcement, it will be helpful to show you what the journey really looks like on behalf of the victim and how un-just the system really is in creating an appropriate “DETERANT” to those who continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
It was not long before I had to attend the beginning of countless court hearings, mediations, the sentencing, and eventually the probation hearing. I felt a deep desire to be at every court appointment because my son could not. I was his representation, his defense, his voice. I had to stand for his honor and ensure that he would not be forgotten. Every appointment was such a traumatic, emotional experience and evoked and triggered every emotion that I had already experienced surrounding the death of my boy.
Each time I went to court, I had to sit close to or right behind the drunk driver who killed Zach. Seeing that person filled me with excruciating anguish. Even now, trying to describe it I cannot capture in words the inescapable, inaccessible pain that had nestled so deep within me. A pain that no doctor could ever reach, a place so untouchable that God alone was the only being who could help.
A mediation was agreed upon instead of a trial, which would have been a lengthier and more demanding process for all of us. I did not want to draw it out and for some odd reason, despite the awful pain that seeing and being next to the man that had sent my Son to Heaven had evoked in me, that hurt never turned to anger. For some reason, God had opened my eyes and helped me to see Him as if he were my own son.
If this were my son, what would I want for him? I would want him to have a consequence large enough to learn a lesson and to experience true repentance by apologizing to the others he hurt, and then to change his life so he would not make the same mistake again.
Through the entire mediation and following sentencing and probation hearing, I was hoping to see these elements in Josh. A penitent man who was truly sorry for the massive damage his crime had created in my family’s lives. Despite my wishes, I never saw him give a compassionate look, nor was there even a quiver of emotion in Josh’s voice as he eventually pleaded guilty to hitting and killing my child. My anguish grew, learning that after hitting Zach, Josh, a doctor, had never even walked over to offer aid to my dying son. Every time I see Josh, now, my mind plays out my son’s last moments of life; Josh sitting in his car while my son bled to death in the middle of the road.
In mediation, there was an agreed upon amount of time in prison, which was 3.5 years fixed and 8.5 years of probation. This decision which took 5 hours of indescribable pain and anguish…NO decision felt good to me…It was not going to bring my son back, So I tried to just stay in the mindset of having this be an example to My other children, that if you do this…that this is the consequence and so forth. The sentencing was scheduled, and I waited patiently for the date to arrive. I thought non-stop about the mediation agreement, and I hoped that during his sentence being served, he would find the sorrow and compassion I wanted to see in him. Believing that Josh would be spending at least 3.5 years in prison made me feel that the state took this crime seriously and had delivered an adequate punishment, that my son’s life had value, and that the court recognized the awful pain of separation my family and I would have to endure until we see him again, and that if my youngest son or other children made the decision as Josh did, that they would KNOW that there would be a serious consequence.
When I arrived at the sentencing, I was surrounded by friends and family. All my remaining children had taken the time to write emotional impact statements that they each read aloud during the sentencing. When I stood to give my victim impact statement, I noticed Judge Southworth never looked at me. I even held a picture of my son Zach, as a visual reminder of why we were all there. He said, “I’ve already seen it, I don’t need to see it again.”
When Josh stood to speak, I was maddened by Judge Southworth’s attentiveness and eye contact. I felt Judge Southworth gave more respect to Josh than he gave to me and my family in our statements. His neglect to hear us in the same manner as the offender— hurt. I struggled to not be overcome with emotion as the sentencing proceeded. I was not angry at Josh, i was angry at the person who was to represent “Fairness” and he only victimized me more.
At the conclusion of the sentencing, Judge Southworth announced that Josh would only spend a max of one year in a rehabilitation prison, with an evaluation at six months to see whether he needed to serve another six months.
Six months passed quickly, and Judge Southworth delivered at the probation hearing for Josh just as he had said—he released him on probation. What a traumatic, disappointing, and soul-crushing experience it was to have justice for my family ripped away. Judge Southworth’s decision seemed to only benefit the impaired driver (over 2 times the legal limit) who had killed my son, and did nothing to recognize, help, comfort, or validate me or My firstborn son, Zach, or the many who were traumatized by the impaired driver who made the fateful choice to drive.
When May hit in 2020, I was mentally preparing that this was going to be a difficult month. Not only is it Mother’s Day, but also the anniversary of Zach’s death. It has also become the first month that I started to receive restitution payments that were ordered to be paid by Josh as part of his sentencing. I saw the check come in the mail and after reading where it came from and knowing what it was, I dropped it like a hot iron. My instinct was to run from it, not willing to deal with the emotional trauma this physical piece of paper represented: that Zach was in fact really gone, and that this was the ONLY acknowledgement I had from Josh that he was trying to make things right. I left it alone until I gathered the strength to finally open it up. Two humiliating $27.50 checks were made out to me as restitution payment for my son and should be made monthly for the next 7-8 years. I was hoping a letter or note would be included in the envelope, expressing his sorrow to me privately instead of a courtroom of strangers. The checks were alone however, cold and impersonal, like money sent to a bill collector.
My mind shouted, no amount of money is worth the life of my child! I grieved while holding on to these two checks, tears flowing freely as my broken heart ripped open again, feeling no comfort, no validation, and no hope. I hated this blood money in my hands. I hated that it was proof that Zach was gone. I ached for him more than ever, wishing so hard that I could go back in time and save Zach from this fate and change this miserable existence of life without him.Since then, currently, I have gotten together with Josh. The hope and prayers that I had, had to receive an embrace, to see a sorrowful heart were answered. It was SO Much harder to think that the person who had killed my son, who had not even walked over to him on the road to see if he could perform life saving measures, that he did not care. I never saw ANY hope in any of the court proceedings that he was sorry. But deep down in my heart, I still had a burden to pray for him and the HOPE that God instilled in my heart was answered. I saw a boy that was shattered by what he had done, and he wanted to do whatever he could to make it as right as it could be. I can embrace the two feelings at the same time, I can forgive Josh and also be extremely broken by spending time with him at the same time… God has given me so much Grace and forgiveness for him, and in our conversations over the last 11 months, he has been able to share with me the trauma he has suffered and lives with every day…It is nothing like what I now have to live with, Mine is a Life sentence…However: I feel compelled to share the power of My story from both sides, it’s rare that a convicted Drunk Driver wants to reach out and help others, and with him to share the trauma of driving impaired and having to live with the consequence along with the consequences I have to live with forever, until I see my Son again will be SO impactful.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story, my hope in sharing the most painful and devastating experience in my life, is for even one life to be saved It is worth the pain. Of course, My Hope is that thousands will be changed not only by the devastating loss of my Son, but the Transforming, Divine Power of Forgiveness as well as the Power for people to hear both sides of the tragedy.
Zachary Spoolstra’s “Momma”
Zach, Forever 24