Calling for wholesale change in societal views on the public health epidemic of distracted driving, a Le Sueur County judge sentenced a New Prague woman to community service, probation and four days in jail in the death a year ago of a 79-year-old school bus driver.
"You are a gifted teacher, use that gift," Judge Mark Vandelist said to Susan Ann Russo, seated at the defendant's table in a quiet courtroom filled with a couple dozen friends and family members of both the late Joseph Tikalsky and Russo.
The judge encouraged Russo because he hoped she would become a force for change after the "absolute tragic consequence" of her distracted driving — likely while texting.
Russo, 48, struck and killed Tikalsky on Oct. 28 as he collected his morning newspaper from a box on the road in front of his home. Tikalsky was wearing a reflective jacket at the time and was on break from his work as a school bus driver, a job he didn't need but continued because he loved being with kids.
Amid teary statements from Tikalsky's widow, a son and two granddaughters — as well as from Russo herself — about the tragic crash, there was a call for help with distracted driving laws, especially pertaining to electronic devices.
Tikalsky's youngest son. Greg, told the court he's begun lobbying for tougher laws, but to no avail. "We have to view distracted driving as we view drunk driving," he said, adding that the latter was once more socially accepted than it is now.
While Minnesota law bans text messaging for all drivers, felony convictions for texting drivers who injure or kill others have been uncommon.
Emma Jean Tikalsky said of her late husband, "I would wish the way he died might be an example to other drivers to forgo electronics and concentrate on driving."
Tikalsky's family spoke of a grandfather who never missed a sporting event or confirmation and taught the next generation how to make sauerkraut.
From the defendant's table, Russo listened quietly. When it came her turn to speak, she tearfully read a letter she had written to Tikalsky, starting with, "Dear Joe." She said her heart aches for him and his family every day and that she would trade places with him "in a heartbeat" if she could.
"I'm struggling to know how to move on," she said. "It is very difficult to comprehend what I did and make sense of it all."
Russo said the Tikalsky family will forever be in her thoughts, heart and prayers. "I will spend my entire life trying to make up for my mistake," she said.
Vandelist then imposed a sentence that had been agreed upon as part of a plea deal. Russo must complete 40 hours of community service with Minnesotans for Safe Driving within the next year, but Vandelist said he hopes she continues beyond the required hours to try to end a growing problem.
"I would bet that everyone in this courtroom has looked away from the road while driving," Vandelist said. No one shook their head in disagreement.
The case underscored how difficult prosecuting distracted driving incidents can be. Reading or sending texts while behind the wheel, even when stopped at a light, is illegal in Minnesota.
Russo told officers at the scene of the crash that she was reading a text before the crash and preparing to send one. But after she entered her plea in August, a forensic investigation found no activity or texts on her phone.
Based on the forensics results, she attempted Monday to withdraw her plea. Vandelist denied that motion, saying regardless of whether she was texting, she should have seen Tikalsky.
Russo will spend four days in the county jail divided in two stints coinciding with the anniversary of Tikalsky's death. She serves her first two days beginning Oct. 28 and the next on the same date in 2017.
Vandelist put Russo on probation for two years, barring her from having active electronic devices in her vehicle or using drugs or alcohol. She also must pay a $3,000 fine that can be used for a billboard warning against distracted driving.
In a quiet hallway after court ended, Emma Jean Tikalsky and her daughter Mary Jo Dorman approached Russo and hugged her. Tikalsky said it was a moment of forgiveness she had long prayed for.
Added Dorman, "I wanted her to see that we're moving on, and she should, too."