Lead Stories

Corruption and providence

The Willis letters | Letters Scott & Janet Willis sent to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer

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)

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