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Driver guilty in crash that killed 5 Oswego teens
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

Jesus Vasquez, left, helps his distraught wife, Monica, to their car Wednesday after a Kendall County jury convicted the Aurora couple's daughter, Sandra, of drunken driving in a Feb. 11, 2007, crash that killed five teens.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Joshua Dillon, 19, of Boulder Hill, reacts to a Kendall County jury's guilty verdict Wednesday. Dillon was one of three teens who survived a Feb. 11, 2007, alcohol-related crash that killed five of his friends.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Arielle Rexford, center, 19, of Montgomery, who survived the Feb. 11, 2007, crash that killed five friends, leaves the Kendall County courthouse Wednesday.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Anthony Urso speaks to reporters Wednesday after a driver was convicted of aggravated DUI and reckless homicide in a 2007 crash that killed his daughter, Tiffany, 16, and four other teens in Oswego.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Tiffany Urso's best friend, Savannah Valdez, right, is comforted by her mother, Danielle. Savannah said she forgives the drunken motorist who caused the Feb. 11, 2007, crash, but that the motorist must pay for her mistake.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Jesus Vasquez, left, helps his distraught wife, Monica, to their car Wednesday after a Kendall County jury convicted the Aurora couple's daughter, Sandra, of drunken driving in a Feb. 11, 2007, crash that killed five teens.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Defense attorney Kathleen Colton said she'll seek probation for Sandra Vasquez, 26, of Aurora, convicted Wednesday of aggravated DUI and reckless homicide after a jury deliberated nearly 12 hours in an emotional Kendall County trial.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis said Sandra Vasquez deserves a prison term for driving intoxicated Feb. 11, 2007, during a high-speed crash that killed five teens, and injured four others, including herself, in Oswego.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Sandra Vasquez, center, and her parents, Jesus and Monica Vasquez, walk into the Kendall County courthouse Wednesday in Yorkville as a jury continues deliberating whether the Aurora woman was driving drunk in a 2007 crash that killed five teens.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Two of the victims' dads - Anthony Urso, left, and Michael Nutoni - wait outside the Kendall County courthouse Wednesday.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Sandra Vasquez

 

Tiffany Urso, 16.

 

Jessica Nutoni, 15.

 

Katherine Merkel, 14.

 

James McGee, 14.

 

Matt Frank, 17.

 

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Published: 6/30/2010 11:50 AM | Updated: 6/30/2010 6:41 PM

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Anthony Urso rested in the hospital recovering from blood clots when his family unexpectedly appeared at his bedside.

John Merkel worked an early morning shift when he was told to call home.

And, by dawn, police visited the homes of Mike Nutoni and Donna Dwyer.

Each parent learned that morning nearly 31/2 years ago that their child was never coming home again.

On Wednesday, as a courtroom clerk read aloud each of the 21 guilty verdicts against a drunken driver whose actions caused the fatal crash, most of the victims' loved ones didn't speak of vengeance or hate.

After nearly 12 hours of deliberations, a Kendall County jury convicted Sandra Vasquez of aggravated drunken driving and reckless homicide for the Feb. 11, 2007, crash in Oswego that killed five teens and injured three others, along with herself.

"She made a dumb mistake that night," said Savannah Valdez, whose best friend was among the dead. "I forgive her. I do, but now she has to take responsibility."

Vasquez, a single mother of two, ages 8 and 3, sobbed while being led off to her jail cell after Associate Judge Clint Hull revoked bail. Her brother, Jesus Vasquez Jr., overcome with emotion, shouted, "Stay strong Sandra."

The defendant's distraught parents, Jesus Sr. and Monica Vasquez, declined to comment other than to say their belief in God will help sustain them and keep their daughter safe. She faces six to 28 years in prison, but the 26-year-old Aurora woman is eligible for probation. Hull set sentencing for Aug. 27.

That fateful night, Vasquez testified, she drank up to two beers and a shot of Jagermeister mixed with an energy drink at a family gathering between 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., before she went to pick up a younger sister, Vanessa, who was nearby at their aunt's house in Boulder Hill visiting their 18-year-old cousin.

After waiting in the driveway more than 30 minutes, Vasquez said she went inside to fetch her sister and discovered the underage drinking party. Vasquez ended up giving a ride to eight stranded teens, most of whom were intoxicated, because the defendant said she felt sorry for them.

Vasquez said she lost control and crashed into a telephone pole at 2:20 a.m. along Route 31 near River Run Road, just four miles from the party, after a back seat passenger bumped her seat. She also suggested another motorist cut her off.

Experts agreed Vasquez's 2001 Infiniti Q30 was speeding, going more than 70 mph in a 45 mph zone, before crashing.

Vasquez testified she was not driving under the influence of alcohol, but she admitted in an earlier hospital interview with police that she was too drunk to drive. Her blood-alcohol level tested above the legal threshold of .08, even three hours after the crash, but defense attorney Kathleen Colton argued those results were inaccurate because of Vasquez's liver and stomach injuries.

Oswego High School students Matthew Frank, 17; Katherine "Katie" Merkel, 14; James McGee, 14; Jessica Nutoni, 15; and Tiffany Urso, 16, were killed.

Their families remained stoical as the verdict was announced in the packed courtroom, lined with more than a half-dozen sheriff's deputies.

Outside, the tears flowed.

"It's over for us, but it's just beginning for (the Vasquez family)," said Debbie Stompanto, who is Tiffany Urso's aunt. "We're never going to see our loved ones again. No sentence will bring them back."

When asked if he wanted a guilty verdict, Anthony Urso said of losing his daughter: "I don't want none of this. I just want to close this chapter and move on. I don't think there's ever closure, but it's a start."

Added Donna Dwyer, who is Matt's mom: "It's 31/2 years and now (Vasquez's) family gets to feel what our families have since that Sunday morning. It's very sad."

Three other teens - Joshua Dillon, Robert Larsen Jr. and Arielle Rexford - survived traumatic injuries. The survivors testified they cannot recall details of the crash, but a hospitalized Rexford told police immediately afterward that Vasquez was "driving like an idiot" while intentionally swerving and taking sharp turns.

The prosecution team - State's Attorney Eric Weis, Robert Dore and Michael Reidy - presented more than two dozen witnesses and 150 physical exhibits, including many graphic autopsy and crash photos. Weis said Vasquez's admission to speeding, consuming some alcohol, and her inconsistent statements about how the crash resulted, all led to the guilty verdict.

Though Colton said sending Vasquez to prison would be "a travesty," Weis called the defense's request for probation, "a far stretch."

"They're (the victims' families) not looking for blood," Weis said. "They are not out for vengeance. They want responsibility."

Colton echoed a remark in her closing argument one day earlier: "There are no winners in this case. This was the perfect, terrible storm. It ended up tragically for everyone, no less Sandra Vasquez."