Although we’ve written countless stories about Patricia Schmidt’s trial and acquittal, she didn’t become a real person to me until Friday morning.
That’s when I picked up my phone and heard her voice on the other end.
Before Friday, Schmidt was but a two-dimensional character – the face in the police booking photo, the woman sitting stoically at a defense table in a DeKalb County courtroom, or tearfully hugging a family member after her acquittal April 3 on charges of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving.
Schmidt called because she wanted to send the letter that appears on the front of today’s Daily Chronicle, in which she offers the apology that some say is too little, too late.
The specifics of our conversation I agreed to keep private. But as we talked, I realized that she does in fact understand the gravity of what happened, and the pain caused by the terrible crash in February 2011.
Perhaps reading her words today will make Schmidt seem more real for others as well. Maybe in some small way, her words can help.
It has been more than three years since Tim Getzelman and Lexi Weber, both 21, were killed when their vehicle was hit by the speeding pickup driven by Schmidt. They were young people with bright futures, and family and friends who loved them.
Schmidt was driving more than 70 mph when she ran a red light at Route 23 and Peace Road and crashed into the vehicle carrying Weber and Getzelman. Doctors said Schmidt likely suffered a seizure before the crash, but the neurologist treating her for a seizure disorder had not forbidden her to drive. Her compliance with doctor’s orders was a key factor cited by Judge Robbin Stuckert in finding her not guilty.
The verdict aside, people have wondered – how could Schmidt not at least apologize? Could she be so cold as not to care about the damage done?
No. It would take a special kind of sociopath not to understand or care, and after but a few interactions with her, it is apparent Schmidt is not that kind of person.
Schmidt did what most people probably would if they were accused of a crime they maintained they did not commit. She listened to her lawyers and kept quiet.
At last, more than three years after the crash, we have confirmation that she’s sorry. But even the most eloquent of apologies does not change what has happened. For the Getzelman and Weber families, the gnawing sense of pain and emptiness that comes from losing a loved one will never go away.
The thought of losing a child – especially in a way so senseless – is heartbreaking, to the point that parents shudder even to put themselves in the place of Tim’s and Lexi’s parents.
No one should be surprised that their response to Schmidt is spiked with resentment.
Schmidt’s saying that she is sorry, that she’s been sorry all along, that she plans never to drive again – it can’t take back what happened. Simply following the dictates of common decency won’t raise her stature in the eyes of some.
All the same, Schmidt needed to speak. The families of Tim and Lexi needed to hear her, even if they decide not to accept her apology. The community, of which she remains a part, needed to hear her, too.
It is easy to think terrible things about someone who has never had the chance to be human, who has never publicly spoken their piece. They can be whatever it pleases us to imagine, and we are free to hate that imagined persona as much as we like.
Sometimes when people finally speak, they reinforce our worst suspicions, as Jack D. McCullough did in his creepy jailhouse interview with CBS’ “48 Hours” after his conviction in the killing of Maria Ridulph.
That’s not the case with Schmidt. She sent her letter with the knowledge that it will be picked apart, that strangers could write more nasty comments about her. She also understands why, and that there’s nothing she can do to change it.
There will be no legal punishment for Schmidt. But if she is the person of conscience she professes to be in her letter, then it’s also clear that she hasn’t escaped this crucible unscathed.
Can her apology bring closure? For those who feel this loss most acutely, there may never be true closure.
But it can be a step toward a future where the friends and family of Tim and Lexi can honor their memory with random acts of kindness and not feel as though there has been neither justice nor remorse for what happened that day in February 2011.
In their statement, Dawn Weber and Tamara Getzelman say that maybe Schmidt should testify on behalf of a plan to change Illinois law on when people with seizure disorders can be allowed to drive. That would be something more than words, which are all Schmidt can offer now.
“I am sorry,” Schmidt wrote.
What more can any of us really say?
• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.