What I said to my mother's killer
I had the opportunity to provide a victim impact statement at sentencing hearing for the drunk driver who killed my Mom, Linda Vander Hart.
Some of this newsletter’s readers are probably aware that my mom, Linda Vander Hart, was killed by a drunk driver, Bertoldo Zuniga, on December 17, 2020. (You can read the eulogy I gave at her funeral here.)
He decided to pled guilty to homicide by vehicle with OWI and serious injury by vehicle by OWI (my dad’s jaw was broken as a result of the impact, but otherwise walked away with some bruises) I just returned from his sentencing hearing this afternoon.
The judge sentenced him to up to 25 years in prison for the homicide charge and up to five years in prison for the serious injury charge. His sentences will run concurrently. He is also ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to my father and a $1000 (ish) fine to the state. How much time he actually serves in prison will be up to the parole board.
As part of the sentencing hearing, I was able to provide a victim impact statement. I can’t say I held it together very well, I was A LOT more emotional than I thought I would be after a year-and-a-half. You can read what I said below
My name is Shane Vander Hart, I am Linda’s son.
While the loss of a parent is something that, at my age, I knew I would face someday. I never anticipated that loss to come so suddenly, unexpectedly. At 71 years old, my Mom, Linda Vander Hart, had a very active life. She and my Dad recently enjoyed a trip to Door County with my brother and sister-in-law. She was engaged in meaningful work. My Mom and Dad were in a good place and were enjoying life.
Earlier on December 17, 2020, my Dad called to tell me that my sister Stephanie’s ex-husband, Jim Bartles, had been killed in a car accident. He was only 46 years old.
A little over one hour later, I received a phone call from what I thought was my Dad, but it was an ER nurse at Mercy Hospital calling me from my Dad's cell phone to let me know that there had been an accident and that I needed to come to the hospital right away.
My heart stopped. At that point, I had no idea what had happened or the condition of my parents. I remember praying on the way to the hospital that my parents would be alright.
Not long after arriving, my worst fears were partially realized. I learned my Mom was killed on the scene.
It was the worst night of my life.
I saw her a day or two earlier, and now she is gone, and I didn't get to say goodbye. I hurt for my Dad who lost his bride of almost 50 years.
I was furious to learn the reason - a drunk driver. Mr. Zuniga could have called a taxi or Uber or Lyft but instead made the incredibly selfish and irresponsible decision to get behind the wheel impaired at almost twice the legal limit. He then rear-ended my parents’ car, the police report later told us, at approximately 70 mph, driving down E. Euclid Ave, whose speed limit, I believe, is 30 or 35 mph. They were headed to my sister's house to console my sister, niece, and nephews.
Because Mr. Zuniga had to get plastered and get behind the wheel, my Mom is gone.
What kind of a person does that? There is absolutely no excuse, none.
I can't even describe how angry I was and have been for the last year and a half.
How have I been impacted?
In a word, absence, my Mom is now absent from my life. She has been gone for over a year and a half, 560 days today.
In those 560 days that Mr. Zuniga has been free, I hope he enjoyed the holidays with his family because my Mom has been absent from ours. Two Christmases, one Thanksgiving, two birthdays, and two Mother's Days, she has been gone.
She was not there when my youngest child graduated from nursing school. She will not be there to see my children marry and have kids because Mr. Zuniga had to get plastered and get behind the wheel.
I have been so angry. I hated him. And I hated feeling that way.
I don't even know how you quantify her absence. I felt he couldn't spend enough time in prison to compensate for the harm he caused my family, especially my Dad.
I wanted him to rot and die in prison. I wanted him to get what he deserved.
I've been continually reminded over the last year and a half as I read the Bible that I'm not getting what I deserve because of Jesus.
Because of my sin, I deserve death, but Jesus paid that penalty for me.
He also paid that penalty for my Mom, and she received the gift of grace that Jesus offered. We've mourned and continue to mourn her absence, but I know she's doing fine in the presence of Jesus, and I will one day see her again.
In this time God has been dealing with me.
The Bible says in Ephesians, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
I can no longer hate Mr. Zuniga. When I was in college, I made some stupid choices with alcohol, and my story could have been his story, but by the grace of God, it isn’t.
I can't walk in unforgiveness. God called me to forgive, whether he asks for it or not, whether he is remorseful or not, which was hard because I wanted to hate him so badly.
God has also called me to pray for Mr. Zuniga and his family. As I’ve prayed, I realized his family soon would also experience an absence. While different from the absence we feel it is an absence nonetheless. So I will continue to pray for them.
And I do forgive you, Mr. Zuniga. I can honestly say that now, it has been a process. Even though I forgive you, I believe you need to be held accountable for your actions. I trust you will be given a fair and just sentence, whatever length of time that may be.
Ultimately, you will also stand before a holy God one day to give an accounting of your life and He will judge. What will your defense be? What answer will you give?
I will continue to pray for you. I pray that God will change you and free you from your addictions. I pray that you would find rest and peace by placing your faith in Jesus Christ, who loved you so much that he died on cross so your sins can be forgiven and you can experience eternal life. He is our only hope for heaven and He is the only one who can justify us before God on that judgement day. Only with Christ, even in prison, can you truly be free.
And I pray that one day you and my Mom will embrace in heaven.
Note: This article will not go behind the paywall after a week like other articles do, and I’m opening comments up to everyone for this article, not just paid subscribers, as well.