No recourse for Hampshire family victimized by DUI
On the surface, Hampshire resident Francisco Valdez Sr. is a millionaire.
He and his family were awarded $2.7 million for a Dec. 24, 2008, crash caused by a drunken driver who eventually was sent to prison for eight years.
In reality, Valdez and his family are in dire straits.
He walks with a cane, must use a scooter to move around a house he built himself a decade ago and cannot return to his construction job to support his family.
The chances of collecting any of that money from the drunken driver who didn't have insurance are slim.
Furthermore, a Kane County judge recently gave the go-ahead for the bank to put the Valdez home up for foreclosure auction. They'll have to move by mid-July.
This because the Valdez family was in the wrong place at the wrong time headed to an Elgin hospital on a snowy Christmas Eve morning to visit Valdez's wife, who had a stroke a month earlier when their car was hit head on.
"This is a tragedy upon a tragedy," said Laura Haske, an Elgin attorney working pro bono to help the family in their foreclosure case.
Even after a drunken driver goes to prison, families seem to be victimized again and again as they must live with the fallout from the crash.
'My sisters were screaming'
It was the morning before Christmas and Francisco Valdez piled his kids Yurittza, Yessenia, Yvette and Francisco Jr. and father-in-law, Artemio Salinas, into his 1997 Hyundai Sonata.
Salinas, who hated the cold, had a flight back to his home in Texas later that day.
But the family first was going to Provena St. Joseph Hospital to pay a visit to Diana Valdez, who suffered a stroke Nov. 23, 2008.
They all eventually arrived at the hospital as patients in the emergency room.
On Route 20 near Marshall Road, they saw a 1997 Toyota Tacoma driven by then-36-year-old James M. Palmer, of the 900 block of Cookane Road, Elgin, speeding toward them.
Palmer went into the eastbound lanes on Route 20 to pass another vehicle. He was far from sober. Authorities said Palmer's blood alcohol content was 0.27, more than three times the legal threshold of .08.
"All my sisters were screaming," recalled Francisco "Franky" Valdez Jr., 22. "My dad tried to stop. It was too late. He hit us head on."
Paramedics and firefighters from several departments responded to the crash about 9:15 a.m.
One of the first responders was Pingree Grove Fire Department Lt. Philip Adams, who arrived in a truck that carried extrication equipment.
"It wasn't the worst accident I've ever seen, but I knew we we're going to have some serious injuries," said Adams, a firefighter since 1997.
With both parents hospitalized, Franky Valdez was forced to grow up fast and took care of his parents for 2½ years.
His mother was recovering from her stroke and was unable to return to her job as a security guard at Elgin's Grand Victoria Casino.
Francisco Valdez Sr. had a shattered left ankle, broken ribs and a broken back.
"He thought he was going to go back to work, but he didn't," Diana Valdez said of her husband. "He went backward."
In February 2009, the Valdez family sued Palmer for negligence. According to court records, Palmer never hired an attorney, went to court or even answered the lawsuit.
Kane County Judge Judith Brawka in September 2009 issued a default judgment of $2.7 million to the Valdezes and Salinas.
Palmer eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI and was sentenced to eight years in prison; he had faced a maximum of 12 years.
"He feels real bad about it," said Palmer's father, Robert.
Margaret Palmer said her son was unemployed so he came back to her Elgin home to live.
"I know that he's remorseful over what he did. I couldn't tell you what he was thinking when he got into that car," she said. "My door is always open to my children. I love them no matter what. I don't always approve of what they do, but that doesn't stop me from loving them."
The Kane County assistant public defender who represented Palmer could not be reached for comment.
In Illinois, people can get their sentence cut in half for good behavior for some crimes. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, Palmer, who turns 40 in August, could be released June 22, 2014.
While his sentence has an end, the Valdezes feel their sentence is perpetual.
Haske, who volunteers for Elgin-based Administer Justice, which provides free legal service to low-income families in civil proceedings such as foreclosures, said the crash itself and lack of recourse for the family has been very frustrating.
"The justice system can only go so far. It can only do so much," she said. "(The Valdezes) are entitled to that money, but the pocket it's coming out of is empty."
Palmer isn't the only one with empty pockets.
Francisco Valdez Sr. was unable to return to work, and his insurance ran out. His wife didn't get her job back at the casino. They received some disability payments and help through Medicaid, but they couldn't keep up the $2,200 monthly mortgage payments.
Holes in safety net
Other safety nets were unable to catch the family.
The Illinois attorney general's office has a fund that provides victims of violent crimes with up to $27,000. But Diana said she didn't know about it and didn't apply.
The Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists was unable to help.
AAIM Director of Victim Services Pat Larson said the group provides financial assistance for families and victims of drunken driving crashes. But like any organization, its funds are limited and they need to focus where their dollars would help the most such as covering expenses of a parent on work leave for several months.
Larson said that with both parents unable to work, the Valdezes' needs were too great, and any help would be simply buying time instead of building a bridge to stability. AAIM usually donates up to $3,000 to victims, but the Valdezes' financial hole simply was too deep.
The group's board must sign off on each expenditure. "We have to make sure that after we save their house, they can manage again," Larson said. "It's such a hard task. It breaks my heart."
For the Valdezes, bills piled up, a car was repossessed and maintenance deferred on the home in favor of food and medicine. They canceled the phone because it just rang and rang with collection calls.
Diana Valdez said they were unable to secure a loan modification or pay only interest on the mortgage because both she and her husband are on disability.
A judge last month ordered their home to be sold at auction, and they have to be out by July 12.
Francisco Sr. still goes to physical therapy twice a week. He navigates his home's first floor via scooter. In constant pain, it is frustrating for him to hobble around the five-bedroom home that he helped build over the course of 15 months after the family sold their Carpentersville home a decade ago and bought a 1.25-acre lot in Hampshire.
"I carry them in my pocket my pills," he says with a forced smile that's almost a wince. "The pain is hard."
Even more difficult for the family is deciding what to do next. They're not sure where they will go or what they will do, and they don't have a plan. For the time being, it's just packing items into boxes in their now-dilapidated dream home.
Still a family together
The Valdezes feel anger, sadness and the nagging, haunting question of what if?
What if they left a few minutes sooner and missed Palmer? What if they were running late or caught a red light? What if this never happened at all?
But some good, if you can call it that, came out of the crash.
Yvette Valdez, now 20, decided to pursue nursing. She's finishing classes at Elgin Community College and will take her Certified Nursing Assistant test in June.
"I want to work at Provena," Yvette said. "I would see the nurses come and help my parents. I wanted to do that, so it helped me decide (on a career)."
Dec. 24, 2009 the first Christmas Eve after the crash was very difficult, Franky recalled.
But as bleak as things are, the family is still together.
"We're glad we're all here alive," Franky said.
Added Diana: "It brought us closer together, our family."
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