Three-and-a-half years have passed since my coworker Julie Ann Jorgenson — a smart, beautiful, vibrant young woman — was killed in the frigid pre-dawn hours of a gloomy January day. She was in her car, stopped at a traffic light in downtown Salt Lake, when a speeding pickup truck plowed into her little Mazda with enough force to push it through the intersection and partway up the next block. Julie’s car burst into flames on impact and was quickly incinerated… with Julie still inside. I still struggle with the image of her lovely face and hair being consumed by fire. I want to believe she was killed on impact, before the fire reached her, but… well, let’s just say that a vivid imagination is a real curse sometimes, because I can see other ways it might have happened as clearly as if I had stood there watching.
Yesterday, the man who was driving the pickup, Shane Roy Gillette, was sentenced for the crimes of manslaughter and “operating a vehicle negligently causing injury or death.” He received two consecutive prison terms that could max out at 10 years. He’ll also be required to pay $5,000 in restitution.
According to the defense, Gillette was suffering from a psychotic delusion at the time of the accident, convinced that he was being attacked and was running for his life. Now medicated and rational again, he’s expressing remorse and lamenting that he’ll have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life. I’m not unsympathetic to the guy. At least, I’m not now. (Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I wrote some pretty unkind things about Gillette back when this first happened, and then later got schooled by his brother, who somehow tracked me down after stumbling across my remarks.) He is a fellow human being, after all, and it’s not like he set out to deliberately harm anyone.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Julie is dead… suddenly, shockingly, and forever denied whatever future awaited her. And if I’m honest with myself, I find I’m still really angry about that. And I barely knew her, really. I can only imagine how her family and loved ones must feel.
If you were in Shane Roy Gillette’s shoes, what would you do — how would you spend the rest of your life — to try to atone for something like that? Is atonement even possible for something of that magnitude? Would you even bother to try? And how could you live with yourself if you didn’t? Stories of redemption tend to have a profound effect on me these days. There’s a certain category of movies and novels that will reduce me to sobs in fairly short order, because I so want to believe that you can somehow make up for the huge mistakes and failures of your life. But honestly, I think a big reason those stories are so appealing is because I know, somewhere deep down, that they’re impossible. Mere wish fulfillment. That there are things you just can’t take back and that you just can’t fix, no matter how long you live or how hard you try or how much you want it.