Here are the letters Scott and Janet Willis sent to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who said she read them before sentencing former Illinois governor George Ryan to 6 ½ years in prison.
For more on this story, see Marvin Olasky's column: Corruption and providence
Reprinted with permission of Scott and Janet Willis.
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To the Honorable Judge Pallmeyer:
On Nov. 8, 1994, I voted to re-elect George Ryan as secretary of state to be in charge of road safety. I am a mother. I loved my children, home-schooled them, and with God's help, poured my heart into trying to be the best mother I could be. We were very close. A few hours after that vote was cast, I watched as my children were trapped in an inferno. I have had to ask God to help me to forget the sights and thoughts of that day and all that occurred. However, I think now maybe for this one time, if I would be willing to share some things, it might down the road, benefit others.
That day I thought [death] was instant for the little ones in the back. It wasn't. An accident report delivered to our home some weeks later related that there was some evidence of a struggle. Months later, the fire chief who was at the scene told me as gently as he could, "In this type of case it's never really instant."
As the weeks and months passed, little by little other pieces of information about that day have come our way unbidden. One of the first persons on the scene happened to be the brother of the boyfriend of my husband's best friend's daughter. He related to me that he ran from his car and saw our 13-year-old son, Ben, climbing out of the van right after me, his clothes aflame. He ran in a panic, but this man ran after him yelling, "Stop, drop and roll." He caught up with him and grabbed his hand yanking him to the ground. Ben then began to roll.
I saw my son moments later lying on the street as people tried to help him. He hardly looked like my Ben. His hair and eyebrows were gone, his burned lips made it hard for him to talk. But I was grateful to be able to talk with him, a brief sentence or two. He asked about the others, then said, "My feet are hot." People were trying to quickly but gently pull off the remaining burned clothes. One man asked me if I would mind if he put his T-shirt over Ben's body. He had moistened it with a water bottle. As I stood there, I suddenly was aware of searing, blinding pain in my burned hands; I could not imagine what my son who was burned over much of his body was going through. Ben was put into a helicopter and the paramedic later told me our son was relatively calm and lost consciousness before landing.
Over a year later, I found out that Ben was very much alert in the emergency room. I had the opportunity to talk to the attendant who was at his side. In pediatric cases, she was in charge of simply being an emotional support to young patients who had no parent available. She told me, "I believe he knew he was dying. He asked me to pray with him. He asked if someone would hold his hand; I couldn't because of his burns."
I feel it is my obligation, on behalf of my children, to make these facts known to the court and to Mr. Ryan. Here was a violent end to a violation of the public trust.
In the years since, both my husband and I have struggled with depression. While my husband battled thoughts of suicide, I battled to keep my sanity. My parents have also had their battles. My mother taught the four boys piano so we went to their house twice a week. She has battled depression ever since the accident.
My husband and I have prayed and asked God to keep us from bitterness and to help us be faithful to him and he has. We tried to honor God by not complaining.
But there is a time to speak. I am sharing these facts only because I believe if justice rules, wrongdoing will be deterred. I have learned "when [God's] judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness. Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil." (Isaiah 26:9, 10)
That Election Day, in 1994, I was unaware that in 1993, dishonest and unsafe procedures in driver's licensing facilities had been reported. I was unaware that in spite of some investigations into those activities, Mr. Ryan had allowed illegalities to continue. I was unaware that Mr. Ryan had his sight on the governor's seat and was using these activities to build his campaign funds.
Incredibly, even after our accident, he permitted the fundraising scheme to continue. But I was fully aware of these things when Mr. Ryan ran for governor and won. It was extremely hard at that point not knowing whether justice would be served.
Although we are very grateful for the prosecution of Mr. Ryan, it must be said that he made our heavy grief even heavier. This has affected our whole family: a great-grandmother, three grandparents, three older siblings, our grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. Many of us have had to see our burned-out van on TV repeatedly over the past 12 years. Had there been an admission of guilt from Mr. Ryan, right from the start, the air would have been cleared. All of us have waited patiently for justice.
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Gov. George Ryan is a father and a husband. He seems to have a close, loving family. My wife Janet and I are aware of his years of public service for the State of Illinois. Because of this, it makes the issues of this case so difficult.
First, six young children from Illinois are killed in a fiery explosion in Wisconsin caused by a mud-flap assembly [falling] off an Illinois truck driven by an Illinois Commercial Drivers Licensed driver. These deaths would strongly necessitate an investigation by the Illinois Department of the Secretary of State, overseer of public safety on the roads. Besides discovering why the accident happened and who might have caused it, the investigation could have provided insight [on] how to prevent similar future tragedies. When attempts to investigate were made, they were ignored, then suppressed.
Eventually evidence was uncovered pointing toward buying fundraising tickets for Secretary of State Ryan in exchange for CDL licenses. The driver had received his license illegally and was unqualified to drive a truck on the road. Warnings from other truck drivers about the piece of metal dangling went unheeded. The driver could not understand English. Thus, six children were innocent victims resulting from a political scheme to raise campaign money. Now a decision had to be made. Either allow the truth to come out giving understanding and justice for the children's deaths, or cover it up to protect the scheme and the one who benefited from the money.
What was required was a person of integrity and compassion to champion justice for the six children. The secretary of state, George Ryan, should have been the one to take that responsibility. Because it was his campaign that benefited, it would have been the mark of a compassionate and honest man to admit the truth. But under his watch, the investigation was suppressed to protect him, even to the closing down of the inspector general's office so no one could look further.
Our family's unanswered questions compelled us to look to other options to bring to light the facts surrounding the accident and its follow-up. [Attorney] Joseph Power pursued the investigation and uncovered the facts, and, it should be noted, took great abuse publicly from Mr. Ryan for doing so.
Secondly, Gov. Ryan must have understood as a father what the loss of six young, innocent children meant to Janet and me, yet no personal contact or written contact concerning the accident was ever made. Instead the investigation was terminated and suppressed, and our efforts to investigate were criticized.
Because he was the secretary of state and because of the massive publicity following the accident, he cannot claim ignorance. Thus he bears the ultimate responsibility in the suppression of the investigation.
How could this happen? How could a man, a father, a public servant allow this? What was done was a crime, according to the rule of this court. But the question remains as to the motivation. [Ryan defense attorney Dan Webb] correctly answered this: "It was politics." Thus, decisions concerning life and death were not decided on principle but on politics.
Janet and I are ordinary people. Not powerful, not forceful. Our children brought great joy to us. Benjamin, Joseph, Samuel, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter were like anybody else's kids: playful, happy, mopey, energetic. The boys loved reading and sports. Elizabeth was her mom's shadow and her doll's mom. We love them. We miss them. We do not despair. We live with a God-promised hope in Jesus Christ.
Almost 12 years have passed since Nov. 8, 1994. The heartache remains but has softened. Janet and I have prayed to not have a bitter or revengeful spirit. These feelings have only occasionally flared up but have not consumed or dominated our thoughts and are not the motive for this letter.
Our thoughts are not on punishment. That is for the court to decide. The real tragedy is that no reconciliation has yet been attained between George Ryan and Janet and me. My wife and I have a strong desire to forgive Gov. Ryan but it must be on an honest basis: sorrow and admission. Even a 6-year-old boy knows when he's done wrong he needs to be truly sorry, and admit it. Then forgiveness and mercy can be graciously offered. That would be our joy.
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As [has] been said so often, corruption has consequences; in this case they were severe. It can happen again. We are not going to go away. This is a battle about right and wrong, good and evil. It's a battle worth fighting. Evil tries to win by wearing us down. We deeply appreciate the tenacity of all those who have worked on the side of truth. They have done so with respect and honor. We are grateful to this court for its patience in hearing this case.
Scott and Janet Willis