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Pain endures two years after van crash tragedy


By Gazette Xtra

Regardless of what DeAnna and Albert Roberts do in life, their world always is shrouded by an impenetrable pain that has held them hostage since March 25, 1999.

That was the day their only son, Marshall, died along with six other young people in a van crash on Interstate 90 north of Janesville.

"It is never gone," DeAnna said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Marshall in some way or another."

Albert has built a park at their Grand Mound, Iowa, home in memory of their 16-year-old son.

"Marshall was the last of the children to carry on the Roberts' name," Albert said. "There will be no more of us."

Marshall was killed while on the road with the magazine sales crew YES, which is affiliated with Subscriptions Plus of Oklahoma. Also killed in the crash were Crystal McDaniel, Peter Christman, Amber Lettman, Cory Hanson, Joseph Wild and Malinda Turvey.

On Sunday, about 20 relatives and friends of the young people who died and those who survived the crash met at the I-90 rest stop north of Janesville to remember the night that forever changed their lives.

The families didn't know each another before the crash, but they have grown close during the past two years.

They greeted each other with hugs and genuine concern. Tears flowed freely. And the pain lessened for about an hour because it was shared.

The van accident happened when the driver, Jeremy Holmes, tried to swap seats with a passenger at 80 mph when he saw a police car pull out behind the van. None of the 14 young people in the vehicle was wearing seat belts, and 11 of them were hurled from the van.

Holmes, a habitual traffic offender, sustained minor injuries. He was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to 12 felonies.

Few, if any, of the families talked about Holmes at the gathering. They are trying to move on with their lives, even though it has been difficult.

For Amber's father, John Lettman of Madison, life has become a daily struggle.

"I'm surviving," he said. "That's about all I can say. I deal with her death one day at a time. A lot has changed. I still find myself waiting for her to call and tell me to come and pick her up at the mall. A lot of people just don't know what it feels like to lose one of your own."

Amber's 23-year-old brother, Ty, said that he's haunted daily by memories of his sister.

Malinda's father, Phil Ellenbecker of Verona, has found comfort in being involved in Parent Watch. The New York-based organization has been monitoring child labor for nearly two decades.

Still, some days are nearly unbearable, he said.

"It's like riding a roller coaster," he added.

Nicole McDougal and Monica Forgues are two of the survivors, but their days also are filled with many challenges. Both suffered severe injuries in the accident.

Monica, 17, is paralyzed from the waist down. She can move her right arm and wrist but does not have use of her fingers. She has limited movement in her left arm.

Nicole, 18, suffered brain damage.

Both teens, however, attended the memorial gathering.

Monica, who lives in Madison with her mother, Nancy Ashton, recently underwent another major surgery. The purpose of the tendon transfer was to restore some mobility to her hand.

"She has been real sick again, too, bouncing in and out of the hospital," Nancy said.

Since the accident, Nancy and Monica are struggling to make ends meet. Nancy had to quit her job as a lab technician to care for her daughter.

"I'm the sole responsible party," Nancy said. "We don't receive any help. I've exhausted all of my finances. I'd like to move to a larger apartment with Monica, but we don't have money to move."

Nancy bought an old van that needs work, but still runs, with donations. Monica's wheelchair can be secured in the van.

Monica has one main goal.

"I'm trying to shut down companies like YES," she said. "That's all we want out of this."

Nicole has a different story.

The Mount Horeb teen was released Saturday from jail, where she spent five months on a charge of battery to a police officer, she said.

"I didn't know who he was," Nicole said. "I thought he was someone else. My memory isn't right yet. I still see my doctor. He's helping me remember."

Nicole appears healthy in all respects. But she's not, and her struggles to gain control over her life have just begun.

"I'm going to try really hard to be good," she said.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
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