Aurora mom gets 15 years in fatal 2007 crash

August 27, 2010 (YORKVILLE, Ill.)

Sandra Vasquez's attorney had asked for probation, saying the mother of two does not deserve to go to prison, although some of the victims' families may disagree.

On February 11, 2007, 26-year-old Vasquez was driving eight teens crammed into a sedan home from a party when she lost control on Route 31 in Oswego and crashed into a pole. Teens Katherine Merkel, Tiffany Urso, Jessica Nutoni, Matthew Frank and James McGee were killed. Vasquez and the three surviving teenagers were seriously injured.

Twice, Vasquez's emotions overwhelmed her and she had to be carried out of the courtroom. She was escorted away as her mother, Monica, testified about how Sandra Vasquez's 8-year-old son is crossing days off the calendar until her return.

In court Vasquez's attorney, Kathleen Colton, read a letter to the judge from one of the single mother's two sons. "Can you please bring my mommy back? I love her and can't live without her. My dad's gone. She's the only person we have," it read.

Vasquez's parents and attorneys answered reporters' questions after the sentencing.

"It was from the heart," said Monica Vasquez, referring to the remorse Sandra showed in court. "It's just been a long journey."

"Whatever his decision, we're going to accept it for now and God knows what happens next," said Jesus Vasquez, Sandra's father.

"She's not a bad person but made a decision and for that bad decision there are consequences," said Eric Weis, Kendall County State's Attorney.

But Vasquez's defense attorney told reporters she doesn't think stiff sentences deter drunk drivers.

"The state argued the sentence would deter drunk driving. In my experience, sentences don't deter anybody from doing anything wrong, any kind of criminal act," said Colton.

Even some of the crash victims' relatives admit to struggling with the length of sentence she deserved.

"Nobody's a winner. I didn't win, she didn't win. She's going to be away from her babies just like my daughter," said Mike Nutoni, victim's Father. "They could've given her 100 years, so be it. It's not going to bring my child back."

"There's a lot of lessons in this crash that were never learned. If my son wasn't out at 2 a.m., he wouldn't have been killed that night. If I knew where he was, he wouldn't have been killed that night," said Donna Dwyer, victim's mother.

A father of one of the surviving victims had a message for the public.

"I would hope that all the folks...could learn something from this. I don't believe the defendant did anything intentionally. However, she was drinking and driving. But just taking these things to heart, I know it will save thousands of lives, for you folks to please, please don't drink and drive," said Robert Larson.

In court Friday, witnesses testified about how Vasquez keeps a candle with pictures by her bedside and how she is now suicidal.

But relatives of those killed in the crash are grieving their own losses all over again.

"I don't know what I'm thinking right now. I'm too emotional," said Donna Dwyer, mother of Matthew Frank.

Sandra Vasquez admitted to drinking four drinks but says she was not drunk. Her blood-alcohol level was as high as .124 and was found guilty of all 21 counts she faced.

"She's got two kids. She's not going to see them for a while, but she made a dumb mistake that night. I forgive her. I really do. But she has to live with what we have lived with for three and a half years," said Savannah Valdez, victim's friend.

In July, a jury found Vasquez guilty of reckless homicide and aggravated drunken driving.

Vasquez addressed the court Friday thanking her attorney. She also apologized to the judge for her breakdown and thanked prosecutors for representing the families. She told the families that she was sorry for what happened and said she never meant for it to happen. Vasquez also thanked her family for all their support.

Vasquez said she was ready to do what God wanted her to do. She said she loved her family and asked them to take care of her babies.

A Kendall County judge denied several post-trial motions Thursday afternoon in the case.

Vasquez's lawyer, Kathleen Colton, argued two motions Thursday afternoon before Judge Clint Hull in an attempt to delay the sentencing.

Colton argued that the phrase "extraordinary circumstances" is vague, and that the wording denies her client due process. This, she said, should render that statute unconstitutional.

"Quite frankly, I don't know what the legislator meant by extraordinary circumstances," Colton argued. She questioned whether the circumstances referred to should be applied to her client's life, or the situation surrounding the crime itself. "As I stand here today, I don't know on behalf of Ms. Vasquez which portion I need to focus on."

After reviewing Colton's argument, Hull denied the motion in its entirety.

Colton also argued a motion for a new trial, which Hull denied as well.

Colton said Vasquez should have been awarded a change of venue, and also that autopsy photos shown to jurors shouldn't have been seen during the two-week-long trial.

"My position remains that they were and still are prejudicial. ... The only thing these photographs did is prejudice the jury against Ms. Vasquez," Colton said.

Vasquez, wearing orange prison clothes, wept during the hearing. Her sisters sat quietly in front of the nearly empty courtroom.

"I love you guys so much," Vasquez mouthed to the young women as she was taken back to her cell.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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