Catherine Koessl told a judge Friday that Timothy Vandervere had a number of choices before the April 5 drunken-driving crash that killed her parents and uncle:
He could have stayed at his brother’s house, where he had spent the day drinking, riding ATVs and shooting guns.
He could have pulled off the road.
He could have called for ride.
Instead, Vandervere got behind the wheel of his truck, his blood alcohol level nearly four times the legal limit.
He then sped down Highway 50, going nearly 100 mph before plowing into a vehicle carrying Dr. Vincent and Mary Rizzo, Dr. Michael Rizzo and Gerald Rizzo. Vincent, Mary and Michael were killed; Gerald was critically injured.
After the crash, Koessl said, she and her family had choices too.
“We got to choose three caskets. We got to choose what to put in three obituaries. We got to choose what clothes they should wear,” she said. “We got to choose whether my mother should have an open casket or not.”
The family had to choose 24 pallbearers for the funeral.
‘An entire generation’
In statements to the court and in nearly 70 letters submitted to the judge by family members, friends and patients, those close to the Rizzo family expressed the impact of the loss on the family and the extended community.
“The defendant killed nearly an entire generation of my family that day,” said Janet Duemke, another daughter of Mary and Vincent Rizzo.
The sisters described the pain of life after the crash, of the birth of Duemke’s daughter, whom she named Mary, without her mother there.
Duemke said she told her parents she was expecting a baby just days before their death. They spoke of the birthdays and weddings and family holidays, all now marked by loss.
“Our family’s life will forever be defined as before and after,” Koessl said.
The family asked that Vandervere be sentenced to at least 31.6 years in prison, symbolic of Vandervere’s blood alcohol level the night of the crash. Blood tests after the crash showed his blood alcohol content at 0.316 percent, nearly four times the legal limit.
“Most people with a BAC at that level would have been practically comatose,” Duemke said.
Judge Bruce Schreoder’s courtroom was packed for the sentencing hearing, with every seat in the courtroom taken and people standing along the walls. Members of Vandervere’s family sat behind him in a show of support.
‘I am sorry’
Vandervere, 41, of Beach Park, Ill., sat with his head bowed throughout the statements to the court, his handcuffs attached to leg shackles by a chain.
He told the court he thinks about the Rizzos every day.
“There is nothing I can say that will take back the pain and sorrow of the Rizzo family,” he said. “From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry.”
He also apologized to his own family, saying he brought shame to his family’s name and left his wife and two children without financial support.
“I spent my whole life working to get to where I was,” he said, saying he had brought a house for his family shortly before the crash. “Now I have left them with no way to stay there.”
The Rizzo family and the prosecution asked for a lengthy sentence as a deterrence to potential drunken-driving offenders and a statement against what they see as a Wisconsin culture that minimizes drunken driving.
Schroeder said he did not believe that would work, saying the real deterrent would be an increase in the penalties for first-time drunken drivers.
“I think our laws are woefully inadequate,” Schroeder said.
But Schroeder said a long prison sentence was appropriate for the crash. Vandervere pleaded guilty in September to three counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and one count of injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle.
He sentenced Vandervere to nine years on each homicide count and five years for the injury charge, each of the sentences to be served consecutively for a total of 32 years in prison. That will be followed by 17 years of extended supervision.
Vandervere’s hands shook as the sentence was pronounced. Members of both families in the audience wept.
“This man didn’t intend to kill anyone,” Schroeder said. “But he has to pay for what he has done.
“His family has to deal with what he has done; his household has to deal with what he has done, and most of all, the Rizzo family has to deal with what he has done.”