Opinion: If Only

Brenda Ehrensperger's voice in this opinion article is one we, at PursuitSAFETY, hear much too often.

Steven Ehrenspergerby Brenda Ehrensperger
PursuitSAFETY Member

If only we had more law enforcement officers like Larry Trent, director of the Illinois State Police. He not only has the insight to understand the issues PursuitSAFETY is bringing to the public's attention, he has the courage and ability to call for a stop to a behavior that has cost too many precious lives already. If we had such a "top cop" in my state of Alabama, my son Steven might still be with me.

I was absolutely shaken by Trent's statement that speeding to a call saves maybe 90 seconds in response time for a 10-mile drive. Prorating that to an even smaller distance, it means my son was killed in hopes of saving 30-40 seconds or less. The life of a 20 year old with his whole life ahead of him was given in exchange for a few seconds. Would our police make that deal with the lives of their family members?

Another startling statistic in the article is that 76 percent of drivers do not hear a police siren or see the lights in time to react. The police officer who struck my son's car approached him from behind at night at a high rate of speed. He attempted to pass Steven in a no-passing zone. As Trent said, our roadways are not NASCAR where a driver's reaction to a sudden emergency situation can be predicted. The 22-year-old police officer who killed Steven apparently thought he could predict exactly what Steven would do when suddenly put in that situation.

Steven died Nov. 28, 2007, five days after the Uhl sisters died in Illinois. We have no "Director Trent" to come forward and say, "Steven did not die in vain; I will change things as a result of this." In fact, just the opposite has happened. The City of Springville, Alabama, the community where my son lived his whole life, has not come forward to even say they will review their vehicular police response or pursuit procedures. Apparently, they are willing to have other families suffer the same tragedy.Jessica and Kelli Uhl

Trent is fighting not only a mindset that police have the right to drive fast, but also a desire on the part of some of our officers to drive fast even when the situation just presents an opportunity. I pray that more officers like Trent will come forward and give a voice to victims like Jessica and Kelli Uhl and my son Steven. May God bless Larry Trent.

Published: January 26, 2009

Link to article Unwritten Policy, featuring an interview with Larry Trent.

Steven's Last Day Here
by Brenda Ehrensperger

Steven and KristiAlabama — I often told my son Steven that if before he was born, God had given me a pencil and paper and told me to write about the son I wanted, it would have been him. I was blessed by sharing his life for almost 21 years, until on the night of November 28, 2007, when a young police officer made several bad decisions that cost Steven his life.

Steven and Tyler on graduation dayMy son's last day was a good one. His college classes had ended by midday and it was his best friend Tyler's birthday. They did some of their favorite things that day — played football, went to a movie, just hung out and talked as they often did. Steven left us a lot of messages that were to help us endure the terrible times ahead in his last conversations with Tyler. He told Tyler he was not afraid to die and, if the time came, he was ready. He even told Tyler the clothes he wanted to be buried in when the time came. This along with some recent conversations I had with Steven makes me feel that he almost sensed something was going to happen.

Steve and KimiThe guys ended their day with Tyler's family getting together at the bowling alley. From what I hear, Steven was on the top of his game that night (he loved to win). Steven had his girlfriend Kimi at his side, so he was truly happy. About 10:30 pm we called Steven. He said he was heading home but wanted to know if he could spend the night with Tyler. Steven came home, picked up his XBOX 360 controller, sent Kimi a text message saying he loved her, came into our bedroom to kiss me goodnight, and told me he loved me. He walked out the door and five minutes later he was dead, killed less than a mile from home.

What Happened?
Dad and StevenEven though Steven died within minutes of walking out the door, we were not told for almost five hours. Our phone rang about 4:15 am. A stranger's voice said we needed to come to the back door. My first thought was to look across the hallway and say a prayer that Steven was safely in his room. That not being the case, I immediately turned to my husband and told him that something horrible had happened to Steven. I just knew.

I followed my husband David downstairs but could go no further than the kitchen. As the man dressed in plain clothes walked into our den, I simply said "Please tell me he is not dead." He looked at me and said he was sorry.

"The world is also diminished in my eyes because I have tasted the bitterness that comes from having the most tragic event of your life treated coldly and without regard by those whose primary concern is to avoid accountability. A sincere 'I'm sorry your son died' from those responsible, and more responsiveness on the part of our public officials, would have gone a long way."
—Brenda H. Ehrensperger

The Horrible Wait for Answers
The coroner told us that he doubted Steven had suffered, but since Steven had no visible external injuries there was no way to know that for sure. The state required that an autopsy be performed without our consent, so our precious son's body was shipped half way across the state. Steven came back to us a day later, but no one told us the cause of death, other than "blunt force trauma." I wanted to know, did my son suffer? I was left to worry about this for six months. I finally got the assistant county coroner to call the state capitol and request a copy of the report.

Steven's senior portraitHe was my son — I had a right to know what the injuries were that took his life. The coroner promised he would go over the results of the autopsy when they were available. Instead, an envelope showed up in our mail box. My husband David and I stood in our kitchen and slowly opened the envelope. The report was staggering. Steven's injuries were far greater than anything we had imagined. Multiple skull fractures and brain injuries, 10 broken ribs, ruptured aorta, and every major organ damaged.

No parent should ever have to read the results of an autopsy on their child as my husband and I did. Our beautiful, healthy son's body had simply been destroyed internally. Because Steven's brain was severed from his spinal cord, I felt sure he did not suffer.

Six months was a long time to wait for that answer but nobody seemed to care. Steven's injuries bore witness to the violence of the impact and speed at which the police car was traveling when it struck his car.

Because the crash involved a police officer from a municipality, state troopers were in charge of the investigation. We were initially told the investigation would take about two weeks. Then we were told a month. We learned that the rear tail light bulbs from Steven's car were missing. Who had taken them? We had recently had the car serviced so we knew he had lights. Virtually no information was provided to us as the investigation proceeded. Our son had died and we knew very little about why it happened. Nobody was talking to us. Finally, at the end of May, six months after Steven's death, we learned the homicide report was finished and sent to the state capitol for approval.

Even though we had been told we could see the report once approved, that was not the case. The case was going before a grand jury so we were still not allowed see the report. A county grand jury met on August 11, 2008, and voted not to indict the police officer. We were not allowed to know what was said at the hearing or what evidence was presented. Our son's life was sacrificed and we were not allowed to know the rationale for not holding the officer who caused his death accountable. It is our understanding, however, that there was no specific estimation of the speed of the police car mentioned at the hearing.

Mom and StevenAnd Still We Miss Him
So, that is how a wonderful young man's life ended, three months shy of his 21st birthday. His family and friends are left to miss him everyday. David and I are left to grieve not only for our son, but also for Kimi, our new "daughter" and for our grandchildren who will never be — Connor and Faith were the names Steven and Kimi had already chosen. The world is a much lesser place without Steven. The world is also diminished in my eyes because I have tasted the bitterness that comes from having the most tragic event of your life treated coldly and without regard by those whose primary concern is to avoid accountability. A sincere "I'm sorry your son died" from those responsible, and more responsiveness on the part of our public officials, would have gone a long way.