A bereaved mom's life-saving message for cops
How would you describe a state trooper driving his patrol car at 126 miles per hour on a busy Interstate highway while using his in-car computer and chit-chatting on his personal cell phone with his girlfriend?
The officer in question later testified that he “exercised a reasonable degree of care for the safety of the motorist public during the entire time.” State troopers, he said, are “trained to ‘multi-task’.”
Two teenaged sisters heading his way in an opposing lane after a holiday family photo session were not available for comment.
Turning Tragedy to Teaching
As the two vehicles neared each other, the trooper lost control of his Impala. It rocketed off the pavement and onto the grassy median that had no protective barriers. There it hit a culvert and hurtled airborne. It tore into the sisters’ Mazda sedan like a missile. Both girls were killed instantly in the fiery crash, their bodies so mangled that the undertaker declared them “unviewable.”
That their mother, Kimberly Schlau, doesn’t hate cops is a miracle.
That she is driven to share with law enforcement painful lessons learned is a gift.
Schlau brought her mission recently to the ILEETA annual training conference, where she addressed a standing-room-only crowd during a presentation on driving decision-making. Later, in a private conversation with PoliceOne, she recounted more details of the horrific day that changed her life and that she now hopes will change law enforcement as well.
It has taken more than four years for the worst of the aftermath to settle, but that fateful Friday of the crash, the day after Thanksgiving 2007, remains forever seared into Kim Schlau’s memory.
Her oldest daughters, Jessica Uhl, 18, and Kelli Uhl, 13, were what a judge would later term “an integral part of a modern divorced family...kind, loving, bright, and caring girls.” They lived with their mother and 8-year-old sister Madelyn (“Maddy”) in the southern Illinois town of Collinsville, a few miles over the state line from St. Louis.
Early that morning, Jessica and Kelli had left their house while their mother was still in bed and had driven to the home of their father, who’d remarried and lived 20 minutes away in a small town off I-64. There, laughing and kidding around, they posed for pictures with their dad, step-grandparents, and a step-brother, then headed home shortly before noon.
Their mother was getting Christmas decorations out by then, planning to trim a tree with the girls that evening. “About 2:30, I thought it odd that I hadn’t heard from them,” she remembers. Jessica, a college freshman, needed to drop Kelli off, change clothes, and be at work for a part-time job in a tanning salon by 3:00.
“Concerned but not panicky yet,” Schlau repeatedly called Jessica’s cell phone and got voice mail. She called her ex-husband, Jessica’s employer, friends — no one had heard from the girls.
Never Going to Get Them Back
By 5:00 p.m., dark outside now, “my radar was going off — that parent thing,” she says. “Something was just not right.” She decided to take Maddy and drive the route along state highways and I-64 that the sisters would have taken home.
Then she heard a car door close on the driveway and her dog barking. Oh, Jessica! she thought. She’s home! But coming toward the house, she saw two uniformed officers from the Illinois State Police and a man whom Schlau, a longtime paralegal in the area, recognized as the county coroner.
“Right then, I knew I was never going to get them back,” she says. “But for just a moment I thought, ‘If I don’t open the door, this doesn’t become real’.”
Her daughters had been dead for more than five hours. Expressing condolences, the men said the girls’ Mazda had been struck on I-64, not far from the Collinsville exit, by an ISP trooper rushing to the scene of a two-car accident “with entrapment.” The trooper had survived but was hospitalized with broken legs and other serious injuries.
The loss of a child is “a sea of grief, the worst type of loss,” a therapist who counseled Schlau later testified. “It denies the normal progression of life. When a child dies, the parent’s hopes, dreams, and future die as well.
“In the beginning, the waves are very high and very close together and one feels like they are drowning. The intensity of the waves changes over time, but one never gets out of the water.”
Compounding the devastating trauma in this case were dark and surreal undercurrents that bubbled to the surface as the media and a coroner’s jury dug into the circumstances and Schlau “began hearing things from people who knew people.” Among the successive shocks that rocked the girls’ survivors:
• The 29-year-old trooper had been involved in two previous wrecks during his six-year career. One was a fender-bender with no injuries, but the other involved a car he’d rear-ended at a stop sign while he allegedly was distracted with his computer. The state had paid out some $2,000,000 to the injured passengers.
• In the girls’ case, the trooper, released from the hospital after a month’s recovery, said he lost control of his cruiser when he swerved to avoid colliding with a white car that unexpectedly moved into his lane and cut him off. Investigators interviewed more than 70 people but could find no one to corroborate his story. His dash-cam, which was supposed to automatically activate when his lights and sirens were on, for some reason had not been engaged.
• The trooper claimed he didn’t know how fast he was going when he lost control, but an accident reconstructionist pegged his speed at 126 miles per hour. IA investigators said he was using his computer and talking by flip phone to his girlfriend about a bicycle she’d bought for their young daughter — while weaving in and out of traffic on a roadway that was far from deserted. The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year and the site of the high-noon accident was near a popular mall.
• The trooper insisted he had ended the four-minute phone call before he lost control, a claim that cell phone records tended to refute. As for his computer use, he said he was messaging a fellow officer for directions to the accident he was responding to: people were trapped — an emergency. However, information originally transmitted by dispatch indicated that police and EMS help was already at the site, with helicopter transport on standby; the scene was “secure,” so no urgency. The trooper said he hadn’t heard that part of the call.
“We came to realize that this was not just a simple response gone bad,” Schlau says. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong — a ‘perfect storm.’ But with better decisions, it would have been wholly preventable and I would have my kids.”
Early in 2008, the trooper was charged with two counts of reckless homicide and two counts of aggravated reckless driving. Appearing in court in a wheelchair, he pleaded not guilty and was released on $30,000 bond. The ISP suspended him with pay, the agency’s director calling the trooper’s actions “indefensible.” Potentially, he faced 16 years in prison.
As the legal process crept forward, the sisters’ survivors struggled with a toxic mix of bewilderment, outrage, depression, and mourning. Their step-brother experienced jags of “uncontrollable crying” in his kindergarten class and at home withdrew into isolated rooms where he would be found weeping. Maddy was haunted by guilt over past fights with her sisters and a fear that she would lose her memory of them. Their father, feeling that “part of my soul died that day,” drove past the accident site twice daily, always made the sign of the cross, and fought to overcome “extreme rage” and a craving for vengeance. Schlau rued the fact that she hadn’t been able to tell the girls how much she loved them when they left the house or to “hug them one last time.”
At the cemetery, she’d sit between their graves so she could touch both their headstones while she talked to them.
Two seemingly interminable years dragged past. Then in April 2010, the defendant trooper made an abrupt courtroom U-turn. In a bargain with the prosecutor, he pleaded guilty to all charges against him.
He resigned from the ISP, his driver’s license was suspended, and he was forbidden ever again to serve as a law officer. His sentence for the two homicides: 30 months’ probation.
“After all he’d done, probation was very hard for the family to accept,” Schlau says in quiet understatement. “On the other hand, there was the risk of having a jury believe he was just doing his job. Ultimately, we felt, ‘Well, at least he won’t be able to hurt or kill anyone else’.”
Three days later, the trooper said he’d lied. This time he was testifying in the Illinois Court of Claims, in response to a wrongful death suit brought by Kim Schlau as executrix of her daughters’ estates. He’d falsely pled guilty to the accusations against him in county Circuit Court, he now swore, only because he felt he couldn’t get a fair trial.
In truth, he reiterated, he had “exercised reasonable care” and had done nothing wrong in his driving; he had hung up on the cell phone call before the crash, a white car had caused him to lose control, and he had both hands on the steering wheel when his vehicle left the pavement. In short, the accident wasn’t his fault.
The judge didn’t buy it. Phone records showed that only 36 seconds elapsed between the moment the trooper’s phone connection terminated and a witness called 911 to report the fatal collision. In that brief tick of time, the trooper had to hang up his phone, put his hands on the wheel, lose control of his vehicle, cross the median, and strike the Uhl sisters, and then the passing witness had to call police — “not credible,” the judge decided, branding the trooper’s testimony overall as “inconsistent and wholly self-serving.”
Last year, eight months after nearly 30 witnesses were heard, Judge Peter Birnbaum ruled in favor of the sisters’ survivors to the tune of $8,000,000 in damages, to be paid by the trooper’s then-employer, the state of Illinois. It was believed to be the largest judgment that court had ever assessed.
The trooper wasn’t done with surprises yet. In an infuriating footnote to the case, he applied for worker’s compensation to cover the cost of his injuries from the wreck he had caused. That claim has been denied.
While awaiting the Court of Claims decision, Kim Schlau received an opportunity, in her words, to “turn my anger into advocacy.” Tim Fitch, chief of the St. Louis County (Mo.) Police Dept., invited her to describe her ordeal to cadets in his academy.
She was hesitant at first, not certain how a plea for responsible driving might be received even by pending initiates into the often-defensive Blue Brotherhood. But, she explains, “I always told my kids growing up that if they were ever in trouble they should find a police officer for help and protection, and I wanted to show Maddy that we shouldn’t tar a whole profession because of the bad behavior of one officer.”
Helping Her Own Healing
Her appearance was a rousing success, and others that have followed, before recruits and seasoned officers alike, sometimes with Maddy in attendance, have been the same. The audiences are hushed when she shows pictures of the demolished cars and the last photo of Jessica and Kelli taken just before they were killed.
“Fast driving is part of the culture of law enforcement,” Schlau says. “That needs to be revisited.
“I’m not hostile toward the police. I’m not against pursuits or against exceeding the speed limit on emergency response calls when that’s truly warranted. I just want officers to think about the possible consequences of their decisions, to not take on distractions like phone calls and texting, and not drive faster than is safe.”
She believes her advocacy is having an effect beyond helping with her own healing. Some agencies, including the ISP, have significantly tightened their driving restrictions since her family’s tragedy and individual officers have told her that she has sobered them into more cautious behavior.
After a presentation to a police group in Nevada, one officer said he’d found a picture of Jessica and Kelli online. He printed it out and keeps it in his patrol car as a reminder to drive responsibly.
Schlau likes to leave her listeners with these thoughts: “Ask yourself, ‘If my family was on this road ahead of me, would I continue driving the way I am?’
“And remember: The craziest things happen in just the blink of an eye.”