Tonda Ranken started with 15 pages of notes.
Fifteen pages about what made her 11-year-old son, Matthew Ranken, special and how the fatal crash caused by a Sycamore man with heroin in his system forever changed her family.
Her little blue-eyed football player couldn’t speak for himself. He couldn’t speak for his older half-brother Nick Weber, who is grief-stricken that he could do so little to save the boy who idolized him when he needed him most.
And he can’t speak for his nephew, Jett, whose existence Weber’s girlfriend, Teale Noble, learned of weeks after she underwent CAT scans and other treatment associated with the cracked skull and blood clot she suffered because of the crash.
Tonda Ranken didn’t know how to cram those 15 pages of notes into something she could read today when Benjamin Black is sentenced for aggravated driving under the influence in the crash that killed Matthew. She had a panic attack. Then, as she had in other stages of the grieving process, she just tried again. She wrote her victim impact statement in pieces over two days.
“I am Matthew’s voice,” Tonda Ranken said. “He can’t speak. I will.”
Black, 29, of Sycamore, faces between three and 14 years in prison; probation is an option only if Kane County Circuit Judge James Hallock finds extraordinary circumstances exist.
Black was driving a Ford Expedition on Route 64 in Kane County about 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27, 2013, when he smashed into the back of a Chevrolet Cavalier carrying Matthew; Weber, the driver; and Noble, the front-seat passenger. The Cavalier had stopped because of a traffic backup caused by another crash more than a mile away.
The state crime lab took weeks testing Black’s urine. In the meantime, Black was accused of stealing $4,000 worth of copper and brass from a Cortland manufacturing business, and wrangled with DeKalb County electronic monitoring authorities over suspected heroin use. When the tests returned showing Black had heroin in his system during the fatal crash, Kane County prosecutors charged him with felonies. Hallock declined to lower his $250,000 bond, so he’s been in Kane County Jail since May.
Tonda Ranken says she’s seen a change in Black’s demeanor in his months in jail. She’s gone to most of his court appearances with a friend or family members, but she remembers Black nodding at his father during his first court appearance, a gesture she thought was rather smug. More recently, in November, he was expressionless as he pleaded guilty to one of the counts he faced in exchange for prosecutors dismissing the rest.
“I think maybe he thought at the beginning he was going to walk away,” Tonda Ranken said. “And now that he realized there’s no walking away, he’s not so smug anymore.”
She hopes Black goes to prison and ultimately inspires others not to make his mistakes.
In the eyes of her husband, Larry Ranken, Black won’t get what he deserves even if he receives the maximum sentence.
“In my firm belief, if you take anyone, but especially if you take a child, capital punishment should come into play,” Larry Ranken said. “Why does he get to live his life? ... I have no desire to ever think of this guy. He took a precious life.”
Larry Ranken wrote his victim impact statement in about 10 minutes, writing from the heart, and plans to let Hallock read it in court.
Meanwhile, Weber, 22, and his girlfriend, Teale Noble, 19, have fallen into routines again. Weber’s life is a rotation of visiting his son in St. Charles, exercising, and working at a factory in Rochelle. Noble started a new job three weeks ago after graduating from high school last year.
Neither plans to go to court today. Noble will be at work; Weber doesn’t want to see Black.
“Last time I saw him, he was leaning against his car, pretending to be injured,” Weber said. “It [ticked] me off. I don’t ever want to see him again.”
His mother’s grief makes her cry for hours on her bad days. She seeks some solace in a support group called Compassionate Friends. Weber’s grief swings between anger and sorrow.
“It’s kind of all the same,” Weber said. “It goes hand-in-hand. I think about it, get mad. I’ll cry about it, I’ll get mad again. I just have to keep my mind off it.”
Meanwhile, Noble said she hasn’t taken the time to grieve, but she wants to support Tonda Ranken and worries about her 11-year-old half-brother, who is Black’s nephew. She doesn’t bring up the crash to him, but her younger brother saw the crash’s aftermath.
“It was tough on him knowing that two of his family members are on opposite sides of what happened,” Noble said. “He saw me in the hospital. He saw the damage that was done, me with a neck brace.”
Noble and Weber remember how much Matthew hated seeing people upset and try to stay positive. Weber remembers playing video games for hours with Matthew. He also remembers being 10 years old and excited to take Matthew’s baby picture to school after his little brother was born.
He was like that again when his son, Jett Matthew Weber Noble, was born Nov. 17: He suddenly wanted to post photograph after photograph of his baby on Facebook, a move that previously had annoyed him when other new parents did it.
His and Noble’s relationship has hit a few bumps, but they believe Matthew, in his own way, is Jett’s guardian angel. Weber cherishes the two hours he and Noble spent with Jett alone in the hospital room just after he was born and wants to be a good provider for his son.
“I’ve always had a drive to want to be successful in something, and now it’s like I have that much more motivation,” Weber said. “I want to provide him with a childhood every kid dreams of. He wants to play whatever sport he wants to play, I don’t want him to have to go without because dad doesn’t make enough money.”
But, sitting in his family’s living room with Jett and Tonda Ranken nearby last week, he broke down thinking about another paternal fear: the unpredictable danger of car crashes.
“Obviously, I’m still here because I have to take care of him,” Weber said. “It scares me that it’s going to happen again.”
His own mother had a soft reply.
“No, baby, it’s not.” she said. “It can’t.”