A jury heard emotion-filled testimony Tuesday as the trial began for an Aurora woman accused of driving drunk in a 2007 accident in Oswego that killed five teenagers.
Prosecutors say Sandra Vasquez was driving a sedan packed with eight teens early in the morning hours of Feb. 11, 2007, when the vehicle struck and sheered off a utility pole near the intersection of Ill. Route 31 and River Run Boulevard in Oswego. The vehicle's occupants were coming from a house party in the unincorporated Boulder Hill Subdivision, according to testimony offered Tuesday.
Katherine Merkel, age 14; Tiffany Urso, 16, Jessica Nutoni, 15, and Matthew Frank, 17, all of Oswego, were pronounced dead at the crash scene. James McGee, 14, died of his injuries one week later.
Three other teens were injured and taken to area hospitals, and were later released.
Vasquez is facing charges of aggravated drunken driving and reckless homicide. She is currently out on bond.
Jury selection in the trial began Monday morning and wrapped up quickly Tuesday morning, after which prosecutors and Vasquez's defense attorney, Kathleen Colton of Geneva, presented their opening statements.
The day included testimony from 12 people, including Oswego Police officers and Oswego Fire Protection District Paramedic-Firefighters at the scene of the crash, parents of crash victims and two of the survivors of the crash, Arielle Rexford and Joshua Dillon. Testimony was expected to continue as of Wednesday.
Those in the courtroom could not escape the emotion of the day, as family members and friends of the crash victims, who filled the right side of the room closest to the jury box, dabbed their red eyes with tissues while those testifying talked about the last night their loved ones were alive.
Vasquez began to quietly sob as Michael Nutoni, father of Jessica, looked at photos of his daughter while on the witness stand. Vasquez's parents, Monica and Jesus Vasquez, sat solemnly in the front row, a line of tears falling down Monica Vasquez's face as the teens' family members gave their testimony.
Even an Oswego Police officer appeared to choke up as he described what he saw as he came upon the wrecked vehicle the night of the accident.
Oswego Police Traffic Sgt. Dan Kipper was one of the first witnesses called to testify by the prosecution and was the first law enforcement officer on the scene, arriving at 2:26 a.m. the morning of Feb. 11.
Kipper explained that he was en route to another call when he got the notification via the IREACH (Illinois Radio Emergency Assistance Channel) system about an accident with injuries and a possible ejection from the vehicle. He said that when he crossed the Route 34/Washington Street bridge going westbound toward the Route 31 intersection, he noticed the traffic lights were not functioning.
Kipper said that, as he approached the accident scene, he saw a male pointing to a female, who was identified later by Kipper as Vasquez, lying face down on the road in front of the wrecked vehicle. The vehicle's driver's side door was open, allowing him to see inside the vehicle.
Kipper became emotional at this point in his testimony, but regained his composure.
"There was a lot of screaming coming from the car," he said.
Two passengers were found in the front seat, Kipper said, and were not moving. Frank was in the front seat, he said, and Merkel was seated on Frank's lap.
One passenger, identified by Kipper as McGee, was outside of the passenger side rear door in the snow, but his legs were caught inside of the car, he said. Seated directly behind the driver's seat was Arielle Rexford, Kipper said, who was screaming for help.
Kipper said there were "multiple occupants" in the backseat.
"I could tell there was a lot of people back there," he said. "It was full of passengers."
Lt. Joseph McElroy of the Oswego Fire Protection District made a similar comment during his testimony, as he discussed what he saw in the back seat of the vehicle.
"There was, for lack of a better term, a pile of bodies," he said.
McElroy recalled that, as he walked around the vehicle, someone from inside the vehicle grabbed his leg. In the confusion of the scene, he initially thought that the person was a bystander helping someone out of the vehicle, but realized that it was a passenger with a dead passenger on top of him and that he was trapped in the vehicle.
"The biggest problem was the live patients were all covered by the dead patients," he said of the situation in the car's backseat.
The doors and roof of the vehicle were removed to help get to the surviving passengers, he said.
Firefighter-paramedic Greg Lawton said the accident was a "mass casualty situation" and that two of the female passengers in the backseat - Urso and Nutoni - were laying across the three upright passengers, with a fourth, presumably McGee, hanging out of the vehicle.
Firefighter-paramedic Anthony LeCuyer said Vasquez had "the odor of alcohol coming from her," although he acknowledged on cross-examination from Colton that he was unsure of whether the odor was coming from Vasquez or her clothing.
When Oswego Police officer Joe Geltz took the stand, he noted that alcohol was found near the crash site, including a bottle of raspberry vodka, a 24-pack of beer, and a bottle of rum, as well as the remains of Jell-O shots.
'Yes, sir, that's
Michael Nutoni testified that the last time he saw his daughter, Jessica, she asked him if she could go bowling with a friend. He said she could. She also said she was going to spend the night with her friend, Merkel.
Nutoni said he received the news about his daughter's death by an Oswego Police officer. However, he said he did not recognize his daughter by a photograph taken at the coroner's office provided to him by the officer. He said he had to go to the coroner's office and identify her.
"I said 'That doesn't look like my daughter,'" he said.
Donna Dwyer, mother of Matthew Frank, sobbed as she named her children at the request of First Assistant State's Attorney Michael Reidy. She said the last time she saw Matthew was at around 7:30 p.m. that night.
"He said, 'What are you doing tonight, Mom?' I said, 'What are you doing tonight, Matt?'" she recalls saying to her son.
Dwyer said her son was going to go to the movies with friends.
She said she received the news the next morning and also had to go to the coroner's office to identify her son.
Ruthie Keefner of Tinley Park, aunt to James McGee, said McGee's mother is incarcerated in Illinois state prison and that McGee was living with a foster family at the time of his death.
Keefner said she received a call from her sister about the accident the next morning and went to Provena Mercy Center in Aurora, where McGee was being treated. McGee was moved to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, where he later died. Keefner said she was with McGee when he died.
Anthony Urso said he was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 9 to treat blood clots in his lungs. He said he talked to his daughter, Tiffany, that day and she was with him when he went into the hospital. He talked with her on the evening of Feb. 10, and she told him that she wanted to go out with friends; she promised him she would visit him the next day.
Urso said his entire family walked into his hospital room the morning of the crash and told him the terrible news.
Urso, like all of the family members who testified, was first shown a photo of his late daughter from before the accident.
"That's my Tiff," he said.
But, also like the other family members, he was also shown a photo of her from after the accident. When asked by Reidy if that was his daughter, he sobbed, "Yes."
An emotional Urso then quickly left the courtroom following his testimony.
Scott Merkel said he saw his daughter, whom he called Katie, early in the evening of Feb. 10. He said she asked if she could go to the movies.
"I said yes and to have a good time," he said.
Merkel said he was notified by security on the job at Caterpillar the next morning that he needed to call home. Eerily, he described how he was not able to drive to Caterpillar that morning as he usually takes Route 31 northbound, and that police had blocked the road because of the accident.
Merkel said he called home and talked to his youngest son, who told him, "Katie wasn't coming home."
An emotional Merkel, when shown photos of Katie, simply said, "Yes, sir, that's our daughter."
night of crash
Rexford, now 19, was 16 at the time of the crash, and acknowledged in her testimony that she and others in the vehicle at the time of the accident had been drinking, except for Nutoni. She also admitted to smoking marijuana before the accident.
Rexford said she did not know who was hosting the house party in Boulder Hill that she and the other passengers attended the evening of the accident. She said she heard about the party from Josh Dillon.
Rexford said a friend of hers drove her and the other people later involved in the accident to the house party. She said they brought alcohol with them - vodka and Jägermeister, a brand of 70-proof German liquor. She said they went to McDonald's and Walgreen's before heading to the party.
The friend eventually left with her brother sometime during the party, Rexford said. She said she did not realize the friend had left until she was already gone.
Rexford said she and another person left the party to go to a friend's house down the street, where she asked the friend if they could spend the night. The friend declined, she said.
Shortly thereafter, Dillon called out to them from up the street that he had found them a ride. When she got back to the party house, Dillon and Vasquez were waiting for them, Rexford said.
Rexford said she did not remember anything between getting into the car and being trapped in the car, screaming to firefighters to get her out of the vehicle. When Reidy read testimony that she had given to police officers at the hospital while recovering from her injuries, including statements that Vasquez was taking corners quickly and laughing, she said she did not remember those statements.
During cross-examination, Colton suggested that Vasquez was the only one who volunteered to drive the kids "when nobody else would give you a ride."
Colton also pressured Rexford during cross-examination when Rexford said she couldn't remember details of what happened before the crash. Why couldn't she remember, Colton asked?
"Because I don't want to," Rexford said.
When Colton asked Rexford if she remembered seeing her friends' bodies inside the car, Rexford, wiping away tears, said, "I don't remember."
Also testifying Tuesday was Dillon. Dillon's testimony was incomplete at the end of the day Tuesday and was expected to continue Wednesday.
Under questioning from Reidy, Dillon acknowledged that he recently pled guilty to charges of harassment via electronic communications, and is serving a sentence of court supervision.
Dillon said he learned about the house party from a girl he worked with. He said he lived a couple blocks away from the house where the party took place, but was in the car with the other people because he wanted to go to the house of a friend who lived on Route 34 near the river.
Dillon said he was introduced to Vasquez early on in the evening, and she said, when he asked, that she would give him and his friends a ride.
"She said, 'Because I remember when I was your age and partied,'" he said.
Vasquez found guilty on all counts
Driver in crash that left five teens dead taken into custody; sentencing
A Kendall County jury found Sandra Vasquez guilty Wednesday afternoon of 16 counts of aggravated drunk driving and five counts of reckless homicide in connection with a February 2007 crash in Oswego that left five teenagers dead.
Vasquez was taken immediately into custody.
A sentencing hearing is set for Friday, Aug. 27 at 9 a.m. at the Kendall County Courthouse in Yorkville.
Jurors began deliberations to determine Vasquez's fate on Tuesday afternoon and continued until Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors say the 26-year-old Aurora resident and mother of two was driving a sedan full of eight teenage passengers from a house party in the unincorporated Boulder Hill Subdivision at around 2:20 a.m. on Feb. 11, 2007, when the vehicle struck a utility pole near the intersection of Ill. Route 31 and River Run Boulevard in Oswego.
Four of the passengers - Katherine "Katie" Merkel, 14, Jessica Nutoni, 15, Tiffany Urso, 16, and Matthew Frank, 17 - were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. James McGee, 14, was taken to the hospital but died of his injuries one week later. The other teenage passengers - Joshua Dillon, Bobby Larsen and Arielle Rexford - were treated for their injuries at area hospitals and later released.
Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis and Assistant State's Attorney Michael Reidy, representing the prosecution, and Geneva attorney Kathleen Colton, representing Vasquez, wrapped up their closing arguments Tuesday afternoon.
Judge Clint Hull, overseeing the trial, gave jurors instructions following the closing arguments and the jurors then began deliberations.
'This is what happens when
you make bad choices'
Weis and Reidy stated in their closing arguments that Vasquez made choices that evening, and that she should be held accountable for those choices. Weis said Vasquez's attorney's arguments were designed to distract them from the facts, alluding to the scene in the film "The Wizard of Oz," where the wizard is unveiled as just a small man "behind the curtain."
Weis said that the "choices that got (Vasquez) here today make her guilty of the charges against her."
As Weis held up a photo of the accident scene, he stated, "This is the result of bad choices. This is what happens when you make bad choices and break the law."
Weis said the jury should not feel sorry for the families of the victims, or the survivors, or Vasquez, but focus on the facts of the case.
"Is (Vasquez) a horrible person? No, she's not," he said. "But she made bad decisions."
Weis said Vasquez placed the blame on other people for her actions, noting that she told the police and the nurse at the hospital the night of the accident that a passenger in the vehicle had been driving the car. She said Vasquez has said different things about how much she had to drink that night.
Weis said Vasquez acknowledged in her own testimony and statements to police that she knew it wasn't safe to drive but she drove anyway. Vasquez admitted on the stand Monday that she drove with one headlight and that she had a "lead foot."
Weis said Vasquez's testimony that she turned around in reaction to being kicked by a backseat passenger before turning back around and seeing oncoming headlights didn't hold up. He said the car would have had to have been in her lane of traffic, on the shoulder, for that to be true, and no witnesses who were driving near the accident site said they saw another car on Route 31.
In defense of Vasquez, Colton argued that prosecutors used "props" to bolster their case, but that she would use "just the facts" of the case. In her closing argument she immediately went after the three surviving passengers, stating that the responsibility "starts with Joshua Dillon, Bobby Larsen and Arielle Rexford."
During the closing arguments, Dillon, Larsen and Rexford sat quietly in the front row of the courtroom closest to the jury. Dillon and Larsen hung their heads at times, while Rexford became upset when Colton mentioned her during her closing; at one point, a clearly frustrated Rexford threw up her hands and quickly left the courtroom in tears.
Colton argued that the eight teens were looking for a party that evening, noting that they had picked up alcohol, including vodka and Jägermeister. She painted a picture of irresponsibility, noting that, earlier in the day, a group of them rode around with a friend, with two of them riding in that car's trunk.
"They were driving around looking for a place to drink," Colton said of the teens. "This is what they were looking for."
Colton warned the jury that "not guilty could be an unpopular verdict," but said they must weigh the facts.
Colton said her client didn't have to testify, but did, and described her as a helpful person, noting that she worked at a nursing home helping Alzheimer's patients.
"This isn't some kind of party girl," she said.
Colton said her toxicology expert, John Paul Bederka, testified that Vasquez's blood alcohol level tests could have been affected by damage to her liver during the crash.
"It's hocus pocus," she said of the BAC tests, "based on ... erroneous assumptions."
Colton said the teenagers made the decision to get in the car that night.
"All those people in the car put themselves in that car," she said. "This is a conversion of events that was like the perfect horrible storm."
Colton argued that Rexford "remembers, she just doesn't want to tell you what her friends were doing" in the car.
A group of young men coming back from a party at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb that evening testified that they had dropped off one of their friends at a house near River Run Boulevard, and one man stated that he saw a flash of blue light at the time of the crash. One of the men stated that he was driving and did not see any vehicles on Route 31 as he drove eastbound on Mill Road toward the highway that evening.
Residents near the intersection testified that they witnessed men take alcohol from that SUV and place it somewhere. Oswego Police officers noted that they found alcohol, including a case of beer, near the air conditioning unit of a house next to the intersection the following day.
Colton theorized that the headlights Vasquez saw before she swerved and got into the accident belonged to the SUV that the young men were in.
"Bad choices don't equal guilty verdicts," she said.
During a rebuttal by the prosecution, Reidy said the "only reason (Vasquez) is on trial is, she's entitled to it." He said there is an "orgy of evidence" to convict her.
Reidy said the defense was using "appeals for passion and sympathy" to sway the jury. He said Vasquez may have had good intentions, but it doesn't mean she isn't guilty.
"This is not a popularity contest," he said. "Her good intentions are negated by her extremely poor judgment. She was along for the party, along for the ride."
Reidy said what he called the "phantom car" that Vasquez saw was a "figment of her intoxicated imagination."
'There was just
a lot of them'
Testimony earlier in the week and late last week shed a bit more light on the events of Feb. 10 and Feb. 11, 2007, for the jury.
According to her testimony, Vasquez's sister, Vanessa, asked her late in the evening of Feb. 10 if she would drive her to their aunt's house on Woodcliff Road in Boulder Hill. That house would later be the site of the teenage drinking party. Vasquez said she agreed to do so even though she was in sweatpants and was ready for bed.
Vanessa testified that her friend asked if she could have a ride from work as well, and Vasquez agreed to that. Vasquez had her other sister watch her then-three month old baby daughter.
Vasquez, her sister and her sister's friend picked the friend up from her workplace in Aurora and dropped the friend off at her house, also in Aurora.
Vasquez then dropped off Vanessa at the aunt's house in Boulder Hill, and told Vasquez that she might need a ride later. Vasquez said that, at that time, she received a call from her friend, Anna Delacruz, who said she was visiting Vasquez's cousin, whom Delacruz was dating at the time. Vasquez then drove over to her cousin's house, which was only a few blocks away from the Woodcliff Road house, to visit them.
Vasquez admitted that, while visiting her cousin and Delacruz, she consumed one Budweiser beer and did a "Jägerbomb," which is a shot of Jägermeister mixed with Red Bull energy drink. She said she also opened another beer, but could not remember if she finished that beer.
Vanessa Vasquez testified that she, her cousin, Ricky, and two other people were hanging out in the Woodcliff home's basement when groups of teenagers began to arrive. She said the groups of teens were bringing their own alcohol.
Later that evening, Vasquez received a call from her sister stating that she would need a ride. Vasquez and Delacruz left her cousin's house, with Vasquez driving, to go pick up Vanessa.
Vasquez and Delacruz both testified that Vasquez called her sister, who was inside the house, to let her know she was there. Both women testified that they sat in the driveway of the Woodcliff house talking to each other for approximately a half hour to 45 minutes.
Vasquez called her mother while sitting in the driveway, noting that she is raised in a strict household and that she and all of her siblings have a 1 a.m. curfew. She said she told her mother that she would be running late and would be taking Vanessa home.
However, Vasquez then got a call from her sister, stating that a girl was making fun of people at the party and that there might be trouble. She and Delacruz then made their way into the house and into the basement, the site of the party. She noted that there were young people - teenagers - partying in the basement.
When asked by Colton about what the teens were doing in the basement, Vasquez, who was emotional during her testimony, cried as she described the teenagers enjoying themselves.
"They were dancing, they were laughing, they were having fun, like kids their age," she said.
Vasquez said she told the girl who was picking on the other girls to leave, and she did.
Vasquez also testified that she helped Dillon, who she said had passed out on a chair and urinated on himself, to go outside and vomit because it would make him feel better. She said she gave him water to drink.
Later, Vasquez said Dillon would ask her for a ride, and she agreed to give him and one of his friends a ride. She said she assumed it would be a ride back to Dillon's house, which was only a block or two away from the Woodcliff home.
When asked why she agreed to give Dillon a ride home, Vasquez said, "I felt bad for him."
It wasn't until around 1 a.m. that the owners of the home, Vasquez's aunt, Christina Melero and her then-boyfriend, Raul Moctezuma, arrived back home from shopping at Wal-Mart.
Melero testified that she and her boyfriend had been out most of the night shopping for their home, which they had recently moved into.
Vasquez greeted her aunt and Moctezuma at the door. Melero testified that Moctezuma angrily told the teenage partiers to leave their house, as it was not an authorized party. She said she did not allow her children to drink in her house.
The plan, Vasquez explained, was that she was going to give Dillon, his friend and her sister and Delacruz rides home. However, she said teenagers all of a sudden began piling in her car; teens that she did not know.
"There was just a lot of them," she said. "I said that there was too many people. I tried to get them out."
One of the teen boys beat Delacruz to her seat in the front passenger side. That boy would have been Matthew Frank. Delacruz said she was upset because Frank sat on her purse, but that she decided to find another ride.
Vasquez testified that her sister Vanessa was angry with her and told her she shouldn't give the teens a ride. Vanessa testified that she was upset that she was missing her curfew. However, she said Vasquez told her that she didn't understand because she wasn't a mother.
Vanessa Vasquez, Anna Delacruz and Vasquez's brother got in another car and drove back to Vasquez's house.
Vasquez said she told the group of teens to get out of the car, but that they wouldn't listen.
"They didn't really listen and I wasn't going to argue with them," she said.
Under questioning from Colton, Vasquez painted a picture of chaos in the car as she attempted to drive the teens to a friend's house on Riverview Court in Oswego.
Vasquez said they originally wanted to go to Dillon's house, but they changed their minds. She said the music in the vehicle was loud and she kept turning it down.
Although Vasquez gave a statement to Oswego Police officers the morning after the crash that one of the passengers, 14-year-old McGee, drove the car at one point, she said during her testimony that she alone drove the car.
From the description given by Vasquez and others, it is assumed that the car left the Boulder Hill subdivision via Briarcliff Road and turned westbound on U.S. Route 30 before taking the southbound Route 31 exit.
Vasquez said that, while traveling southbound on Route 31, somebody in the backseat struck the back of her seat, and that she turned around in reaction to that bump. She said she quickly turned back around in time to see what she described as headlights coming toward her.
"I tried to avoid the car, or whatever it was, right in front of me," she said. "It just felt like they were right in front of me."
Vasquez said she turned quickly to the left to avoid what she thought was an oncoming vehicle, and that's when the car slammed into the utility pole. Traffic reconstruction experts testified that the vehicle was traveling at speeds of around 75 miles an hour, and was going 58 miles an hour when it struck the pole.
"I hit the pole," Vasquez recalled. "I remember my hands were still on the steering wheel."
An emotional Vasquez said the only thing she heard after the car struck the pole was "breathing, somebody screaming... crying."
However, she said she does not remember much after the accident, except for a priest giving her the anointing of the sick, as well as police officers talking to her. However, under questioning by Weis, she said she did not remember the statements she gave to the officers.
"It just felt like a dream," she said. "I remember pieces, but not in order."
Weis asked her if she knew, as a former CNA (certified nursing assistant), the effects of alcohol on the body. She acknowledged that she did.
Under questioning from Weis, Vasquez said that, in addition to the drinks she consumed at her cousin's house, she had a sip of her sister's "hurricane" drink. She said she took the drink away after learning that her sister was drinking alcohol.
Also under questioning, Vasquez acknowledged that she did not immediately leave the party with her sister, but stayed for a half hour or more.
Vasquez also admitted under questioning that she usually drives fast.
"I have a lead foot," she said. "I usually drive pretty fast."