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Column: Woman convicted after DUI crash that killed five Oswego teens leaves prison after 13 years
By Denise Crosby
Aurora Beacon-News & Chicago Tribune
Mar 28, 2023 at 4:57 pm

For Sandra Vasquez, freedom has come gradually over the 13 years since she was sent to prison for the 2007 deaths of five Oswego teens in a horrific DUI crash that rocked the Fox Valley area.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, that freedom became complete when the now 39-year-old woman walked out of the Illinois Department of Corrections building on Lake Street in Aurora and into the waiting arms of a large family eager to finally take her home.
But even before any of those hugs were exchanged, Vasquez’s gaze went to the top floor windows of the Fox Valley Adult Transition Center, her home for the past 18 months, and waved to the women still awaiting their own Independence Day, some finishing sentences of up to 28 years.

They applauded their friend’s first steps back into the free world.

Then Vasquez fell to her knees, whispering her thanks to God “for taking this walk with me” and asking for his continued support and blessings as she ventures back into society.

“We made it. We made it,” she chanted again and again, her tears and quivering voice reflecting near disbelief this day had finally arrived.
Later, after many long embraces punctuated by intermingled laughter and sobs, family members surrounded Vasquez in a tight group hug, where she again raised her head to the sky, only this time with eyes closed as her father led a blessing of thanks.

To say Sandra Vasquez’s first minutes of freedom were emotional would be an understatement, but they were also befitting this tragic DUI case that upended and ended so many lives on that frigid early morning of Feb. 11, 2007.

“Those souls have been with me every step of the way,” Vasquez said, referring to deceased victims Matthew Frank, Katherine Merkel, Jessica Mutoni, Tiffany Urso and James McGee, who were among the eight teens Vasquez was transporting home from an underage drinking party when her Infiniti sedan slammed into a utility pole off Route 31.

Vasquez, who had alcohol in her system from a family gathering when she picked up her younger sister at this Boulder Hill party and agreed to give the other kids a ride, was convicted of aggravated drunken driving and reckless homicide.

Following the gut-wrenching Kendall County trial that featured so many victims, this young mom of two little children was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

“Everybody lost so much,” a tearful Monica Vasquez whispered as she and I hugged for the first time in the parking lot Tuesday morning after her daughter Sandra’s release from prison.

Sandra Vasquez credits the unwavering support of her mother Monica and father Jesus for her survival behind bars. She also found strength through daughter Brooklyn, now 16, and 21-year-old son Isaiah, who flew in for this homecoming from California, where he lived after his mother was sent to prison.

“I never for a moment,” Sandra Vasquez told me, “felt alone.”

After this emotional reunion outside the Illinois Department of Corrections transition center, the group stopped at Spring Lake Cemetery in Aurora so Vasquez could lay flowers on the grave of her beloved grandmother, Florentina Melero, who died while she was incarcerated.
Missing so many family moments, including her son’s and daughter’s entire childhoods, has been extremely hard, of course. But that loss, Vasquez said, is one reason she’s determined to turn her mistakes into lessons for other young people.
“This is not over,” she stated, when I asked whether she can ever be free of the emotional chains that have also imprisoned her all these years.
“This cross I carry with me is part of who I am,” Vasquez noted, quickly adding that, while this burden “will always carry responsibility and accountability,” she’s learned to let go of the guilt.
“If I continue to walk with my head down, I won’t be able to reach my other goals,” she said, which include someday meeting with the families of the victims and asking for forgiveness.
No longer a prisoner, Vasquez now wants to be a messenger.
“I never meant to hurt anyone,” she insisted. Yet “one split second changed everything ... one bad choice” impacted so many others the rest of their lives.
“Maybe,” Vasquez said, her tears and smile offering some hope, “my words will reach the ears that need to hear.”