Jon Markle doesn’t have to talk about that night anymore, the night he drove drunk onto a frozen lake with his family.
A judge ordered him to tell his story 100 times, and Markle met that obligation nearly two years ago. Yet once or twice a month he continues to speak to high school students and convicted drunk drivers. He believes he owes it to his daughter to relive what happened five years ago, when the ice broke.
That’s why he’s in the cafeteria of the Hopkins community center, talking to a small group of men and women who have been convicted of driving while drunk. He’s composed, but every now and then the grief rises up, raw and visceral, and catches in his throat. “It’s my fault my daughter is dead,” he tells them.
Tabitha’s image fills the screen behind him, 8 months old and smiling. It’s the smile she flashed whenever he walked into the house.
Markle tries to hold onto this memory, but the last time he saw his daughter alive she was trapped beneath the icy waters of Lake Minnetonka. That image haunts him.
“Don’t end up here like me,” he tells them. “It’s a miserable, miserable life to live.”
The people scattered around the cafeteria tables are hushed. Markle’s story is so hard to hear that sometimes people leave the room. For those who stay, it’s a story they can’t forget.
If telling the story again and again is an act of penance, it doesn’t allow Markle to forgive himself for what happened. He never expected anyone else to forgive him either.
But someone who has is waiting outside to take him home.
Jon Markle can’t get his driver’s license back for another five years, so he relies on Mandy, his wife, to drive him.
She doesn’t sit in the audience when he tells their story. She worries that hearing it over and over might numb her pain. “I want to feel the emotions when it’s brought up,” she said.
She also doesn’t want to relive the events of that night or the heart-wrenching grief of burying their child any more often than she has to.
The night, Jan. 18, 2013, was like so many other Friday nights that Mandy and Jon Markle had spent together since meeting seven years earlier, at a local bowling alley bar.
Jon, an account manager with a local company, was 36 and ready to settle down when he met Mandy, a 26-year-old school speech pathologist. They married in 2008, settled in a home overlooking Lake Minnetonka and started a family. Isabelle was born in 2010 and Tabitha in 2012.
Mandy didn’t know it, but she was pregnant with their third child that January night when they went out for dinner.
Jon began drinking that afternoon, which wasn’t unusual. He considered himself a “functional drunk” who often knocked back six to 12 beers in two or three hours.
He knew his drinking was a problem, but at least he wasn’t his father, who drank a couple scotch and waters every night after work. Jon’s drinking was limited to beer on the weekend.
“I was in control. … I wasn’t falling all over the place. So Mandy didn’t say anything.”
That night at dinner, after having more to drink, he told Mandy he was fine — it was only a 10-minute drive home. Along the way, he thought it would be fun to drive his daughters onto a frozen lake.
“No, Jon. Don’t,” Mandy said. She feared the ice.
Jon drove the family’s SUV down the boat launch anyway. He veered right into Priest Bay and steered into the channel he had taken his boat through many times in the summer. Home was in the next bay, about a mile away.
Then the ice gave way. Water splashed over the hood, and the car began to sink.
Cries in the dark
As the water rose, Mandy punched at the passenger window before she and Jon found the button to unlock the doors manually. She leaned her petite frame against the console and pushed the door open with her feet.
“Get out,” Jon ordered. He would unbuckle the girls and hand them to her. He turned around and saw Isabelle, the 2½-year-old. She was in a front-facing car seat, screaming as the frigid water lapped over her feet.
Jon unlatched the two buckles and lifted her onto the windshield. Mandy grabbed the toddler and headed for shore.
Bret Niccum, a retired firefighter, was in his driveway talking to a friend, Jay Soule. Niccum has lived next to the channel for 12 years and knows the ice is “always iffy” — so much so that he keeps a pole and life jackets under his deck. One year, he helped pull 13 snowmobiles in one weekend from that channel.
Hearing screams, Niccum walked down to the channel expecting to chase kids off the ice. Instead, he saw a little girl.
“[The mother] was holding her little girl up and going under,” he said. “If we were there 15 seconds later, she would have been under and so would the little girl.”
Niccum grabbed Isabelle and passed her to Soule, who ran with her up to the house. Niccum pulled Mandy from the water and was walking up to his house when he spotted Jon in the water.
‘What have I done?’
The first time Jon dove back into the submerged car, Tabitha’s face was barely above the water. Her car seat was facing the rear. Jon yanked on the handle to release the seat from its base, but it wouldn’t budge. He yanked again and again as water filled the car.
“It wasn’t long before she was under water,” Jon recalled.
When he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he surfaced, inhaled the cold air and dove back to try again.
It still wouldn’t release.
Jon surfaced a third time then dove again, pushing his way to the back of the SUV to unlatch the buckles across Tabitha’s waist and chest. He couldn’t free her.
“Her eyes were open, looking out the back window,” he said. “I saw bubbles from her nose and mouth.”
When he surfaced yet again, Niccum was calling to him. “How many people are there?” he asked.
“My daughter,” Markle screamed.
“I got your daughter and your wife,” Niccum yelled back.
“No! My daughter is stuck in the car seat,” Markle yelled.
Soule called 911 and ran back to the water’s edge with the pole. Niccum grabbed it, shimmied across the ice on his belly and held it out to Markle.
Markle refused to take the pole. He was determined to retrieve Tabitha. Niccum and Soule worried that if he went under the cold water again, he wouldn’t resurface alive.
“He was starting to struggle,” Soule recalled. “If we don’t help Jon, then he won’t get to be the father of the little girl I just carried into the house.”
Niccum shouted and swore at Markle: “The longer you wait, the worst it’s going to be. I need to get you out and we’ll work on your daughter.”
Finally, Jon let himself be pulled onto the ice.
By the time firefighters arrived and freed Tabitha, she’d been under the icy water for nearly 15 minutes. An ambulance rushed her to the Waconia hospital.
In a separate ambulance, Jon lowered his head. “What have I done?” he thought.
When the police questioned him at the hospital, they asked how many drinks he’d had with dinner. He didn’t lie: He’d had three.
But he knew the blood test would show far more than that. He’d had five or six beers two hours before they went to dinner.
‘Hell on earth’
Tabitha was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. There, as they cried and prayed in their vigil over their daughter, Jon turned to Mandy.
“If you want to leave me over this, I completely understand,” he said.
Mandy vowed to stay.
“I made a promise before God, family and friends,” she recalled saying. “I said, ‘I would love you for better or worse all the days of our lives. This is our worse and it can only get better from here.’ ”
Jon was grateful, even though he wasn’t entirely sure he believed her. “I wanted to be the one dying,” he recalled.
By Monday morning, the news was grim: Tabitha’s brain wasn’t functioning. The Markles held their 9-month-old baby in their arms one last time.
The next five days were spent arranging a funeral, picking out a headstone, buying a suit. Jon braced for a knock on the door, a sheriff’s deputy and handcuffs.
Days after Tabitha was buried, the warrant for Jon’s arrest was filed. His blood alcohol level had been .13 that night, far above the .08 legal limit for driving. He turned himself in.
Nine months after the ice cracked, their daughter Caroline was born. Two weeks later, Jon pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide.
Under the law, he could have been sentenced to four years in prison. A sentence like that might serve as a warning to others who would drink and drive. (In 2015, more than 25,000 people were arrested for drunken driving in Minnesota; 95 were killed.) But Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam saw little lasting value in such a sentence. Eventually, it would become “yesterday’s news … and we’ll carry on with collective denial that this will never happen to us … because that’s the way you were before this happened,” Quam told Jon.
He ordered Markle to tell his story 100 times to groups such as first-time DWI offenders and high school students. Jon’s real punishment would be his life of regret.
“If there’s a hell on Earth, Mr. Markle, I think you’re in it,” the judge told him.
“If you can use the tragedy … to prevent someone else from suffering the same amount of pain and tragedy, that, I think, is probably the best you can do [to] atone for what happened,” Quam said.
Mandy has never wavered in her decision to stay with Jon.
Riding in the ambulance that night, she knew she needed to be with someone who understood what she was going through. “And that was him,” she said.
“Every time I would start to feel anger, I would think of something else that would take me away from that,” Mandy said. “I would think about how he had been the one to try to get Tabitha out of the car. … I can’t imagine being that cold and having the strength to attempt that that many times.”
For better or worse
With counseling, they worked together and separately through their grief, anger and guilt. Jon went to Alcoholics Anonymous and outpatient treatment.
With their three children — Isabelle, Caroline and Sebastian, born in October 2015 — the Markles keep Tabitha’s memory alive, celebrating her birthday in April and remembering her death in January. Mandy keeps her photo in a silver heart-shaped locket around her neck.
They speak to grieving parents and cook meals at the Ronald McDonald House, where families stay while their children are in the hospital. Mandy wrote a children’s book dealing with sibling loss. “Stella’s Story” emerged from the words Mandy used to explain Tabitha’s death to Isabelle.
“Mommy and Daddy were sad,” she writes in the voice of a character based on Isabelle. “I was sad too. Now, I had to play by myself.”
These things have helped with healing. Yet, everyday reminders can tug at them — crossing the highway bridge over the lake channel, seeing someone fishing on any frozen lake, even grabbing ice from the freezer.
They still live in their house overlooking Lake Minnetonka, but Mandy isn’t yet comfortable with boating. She has had to “push through” when her children take swimming lessons. For now, they ice skate only at a park rink on solid ground.
With Jon’s license revoked, errands and shuttling are all on Mandy. When she’s riding with her mom, Isabelle sometimes bubbles with questions — “Why did Daddy drive on the ice? Why did the ice break?”
Her answer to her daughter is simple: Daddy didn’t know the ice would break. “He thought it would be safe,” she tells her.
Jon has a different answer for Isabelle: Tabitha died because he was drinking. “I wasn’t making a smart choice,” he tells her.
He hasn’t had alcohol since that night. Sobriety, he said, has matured him and deepened his relationship with Mandy.
“Good things can happen from bad situations,” Mandy said. “We can use our past to be the person we want to be. … Jon has changed.”
Life has gotten better despite the guilt, Jon admitted.
“I can’t stay in that place 24/7 because I mentally wouldn’t be able to handle the anguish,” he said. “My brain switches to life gear — I smile, I laugh, I play with the kids.”
But he knows he can’t escape the memory of what happened after he drove onto the ice.
“I can never make amends for what I did,” he said. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.