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updated: 2/26/2013 9:14 PM

Sadness, not anger, grips Crystal Lake DUI victim over new arrest

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  • Tom Burleson

    Tom Burleson

  • Walter J. Depner

    Walter J. Depner


One could understand if Tom Burleson reacted with outrage Monday when he learned that the drunken driver who killed Burleson's family more than 13 years ago had been arrested again on suspicion of driving under the influence.

And one perhaps could appreciate if Burleson took a small sense of joy knowing that the man who served 12 years in prison for the 1999 crash would be heading back behind bars less than two years since his parole.

But Burleson was neither happy nor angry when his wife called with the news that Walter J. Depner had been arrested Sunday on a DUI charge.

"I was sad, disappointed, and there was a sense of relief," Burleson, of Crystal Lake, said Tuesday. "Sad because he didn't learn his lesson. He's fallen back into his old ways.

"He was, you would assume, sober for 12 years while he was in prison. It looks like his demons have returned," Burleson said.

McHenry County sheriff's police arrested Depner, 61, of Mount Prospect, Sunday evening after they said he pulled his car into a stranger's driveway near his old neighborhood in Lakemoor, walked into the home and sat down on a couch.

Deputies said Depner's speech was slurred and he appeared intoxicated. They also noted damage to the car Depner -- who does not have a license -- was driving. He was charged with driving under the influence, improper lane usage, and driving with a revoked license and without insurance.

The arrest took place not far from where Depner was involved in a horrific crash Aug. 21, 1999, that claimed the lives of Burleson's wife, Eva, and three children, Daniel, 14, Tiffany, 11, and Dallis, 7. Tom Burleson, who was driving his family home after a day at Six Flags Great America, survived.

Authorities said the collision occurred when Depner steered his minivan into oncoming traffic on Route 120 and collided head-on with the Burlesons' VW Microbus. A state expert later testified that Depner had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal threshold at the time.

Depner was convicted of reckless homicide and aggravated DUI, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was paroled in June 2011.

His parole brought unease for Burleson and his current wife, Mollie. Depner openly threatened Burleson during a 2004 court hearing, and in a later search of Depner's prison cell correctional officers uncovered the Burlesons' home address and telephone number.

That forced the Burlesons to change their home number, and Tom Burleson admits tension has been building as Depner's June discharge date -- when he was to be freed from the ankle bracelet monitoring his whereabouts -- approached.

"He's proven he's not a nice individual," Burleson said.

Depner's arrest -- and the prospect of him returning to prison for parole violation, as well as the new charges -- bring some sense of relief.

But for Burleson, who still speaks publicly about his tragedy to discourage others from driving drunk, it isn't cause for celebration.

"I didn't want him to do this again," he said. "I want him to just get on with his life, leave me alone and make the best of what time he has left.

"I worked really hard to dismiss this guy from my life," Burleson added. "I don't think about him on a day-to-day basis. I allowed him to control my life for months (after the 1999 crash) and I didn't like that."

After his arrest Sunday, Depner was taken to a Woodstock medical facility for evaluation. He was released Tuesday and was expected to be taken back into custody by sheriff's police until he can post $1,500 bail. The DUI charge against him could be upgraded to a felony at a later date, authorities said.

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