'It's not my daughter,' grief-stricken dad tells jury in Oswego crash
Too painful to remember, Arielle Rexford said she tried to bury the memory of those horrifying moments in which she survived a car crash that killed five friends.
"I can't handle knowing what happened," the 19-year-old Montgomery woman said through tears. "I just remember waking up and seeing emergency people and banging on the window begging them to get me out of the car."
A Kendall County jury began sifting through the wreckage Tuesday of the fatal Feb. 11, 2007, crash along Route 31 in Oswego that killed five high school teens and injured three others, sparking a communitywide outpouring of grief.
Jurors solemnly looked at crash scene photos as about three dozen members of the victims' families wiped away muffled tears while huddled together in five pews of the courtroom gallery.
On the opposite side of the courtroom, Monica and Jesus Vasquez sat squarely behind their 26-year-old daughter as she fights charges of aggravated driving under the influence and reckless homicide.
Sandra Vasquez of Aurora faces six to 28 years in prison if convicted.
Defense attorney Kathleen Colton argues Vasquez was not impaired when she agreed to give the stranded teens a ride home from an underage drinking party in Boulder Hill.
But what Colton describes as a tragic accident, Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis insists was a conscious decision on Vasquez's behalf.
Weis, whose trial team includes first-assistant Michael Reidy and Robert Dore, said evidence from blood analysis, crash reconstruction, eyewitness testimony and Vasquez's own words to police that winter morning will prove her guilt.
Vasquez is accused of driving faster than the posted 45 mph limit when her car crammed with eight teens careened off the roadway and smashed into a utility pole about 2:20 a.m. after the group left a house party four miles away.
Oswego High School students Mathew Frank, 17; Katherine Merkel, 14; James McGee, 14; Jessica Nutoni, 15; and Tiffany Urso, 16, were killed. Three other students, including Rexford and Joshua Dillon, both of whom testified Tuesday, survived.
Vasquez suffered a punctured lung and broken pelvis and leg, and a crushed collarbone.
Rexford and Dillon were among 12 witnesses who testified in the trial's emotional first day. Family members took the stand to describe the last time they saw their teen and the heartbreak of learning of their untimely death.
Mike Nutoni said he couldn't recognize the face in the photograph a Oswego police officer, standing at his doorstep, showed him. The father couldn't believe it was Jessica.
"I said, 'It's not my daughter. Take DNA from me,'" Nutoni said, trying to remain composed. "I'm not used to seeing my child like that."
Many of them, such as Donna Dwyer, whose son Mat Frank was killed, said they had to identify their child's remains at the coroner's office. Anthony Urso was in the hospital being treated for blood clots when nearly his entire family appeared at his bedside to break the news.
"At first, I thought it was me," he said, "but then my father came up to me and told me Tiffany had died in a car crash."
After leaving the witness stand, Urso broke down in tears and rushed out of the courtroom while clutching his chest and complaining he could not breathe.
Oswego firefighter Joseph McElroy was among a half dozen emergency workers who described the human carnage.
"There was, for lack of better words, a pile of bodies and you didn't know at that point what was happening," McElroy told jurors. "I upgraded the alarm for additional ambulances and called for the medical helicopter."
As he walked around the car, McElroy recalled, "someone grabbed my leg. It was a conscious person. He started talking, but he wasn't making any sense. He had a body on top of him that he was holding up. I didn't know if he was just a bystander trying to help. Then I realized his leg was entangled and trapped in the car."
Firefighter Gregory Lawton discovered Vasquez lying face down in the road.
"She was breathing and moaning and trying to crawl," Lawton said.
The trial before Kendall County Judge Clint Hull continues Wednesday with more of Dillon's testimony. The 19-year-old Boulder Hill man said he met Vasquez that night and asked if she'd give his group a ride because their driver left them.
Dillon said of Vasquez: "She said, 'Yes, I can because I remember when I was your age and I was at parties."