Every day, unthinkable tragedies shatter the lives of many families. For Lisa and David, July 2, 2005, began as a perfect wedding day. More than 200 close friends and relatives gathered on the beach. Lisa’s fondest memory of the day was of her nieces, 5-year-old Grace and 7-year-old Katie, dressed like princesses, throwing rocks into the Long Island Sound.
[Neil and Katie]
Katie was also Lisa’s goddaughter. “Being her godmother and her being my flower girl, it just was so special to Katie,” Lisa says. After a day full of celebration, Lisa’s parents, Christopher and Denise, along with her sister, Jennifer, Jennifer’s husband, Neil, and their daughters, Grace and Katie, all headed home in a limousine. “I remember looking in on the limo and seeing Kate and waving goodbye and she waved goodbye and never thought that, that was going to be that type of moment where you’re seeing people for the last time,” says David, the groom. “It’s, I guess, a moment I see every day.”
On the ride home, the limo was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Police reports indicate the driver, 24-year-old Martin Heidgen, had at least 14 drinks, and his blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. Police say he was driving 70 miles an hour down the wrong side of a major highway for at least two miles before he crashed into the limousine.
An off-duty security officer returning home from work was first on the scene. “I approached the limo driver and I guess I went into shock at that time,” says New York State court officer Michael Lerardi. “It looked like an explosion. The motor, basically, was just sitting on top of him. I knew he was dead.” The limo driver, 59-year-old Stanley Rabinowitz, was killed instantly.
Next to arrive was Lt. Michael Tangney, the bride’s uncle, who had attended the wedding just hours before. “I was walking to the rear of the limousine when a gentleman was coming away from it and he said, ‘Don’t go back there. It’s bad,” Lt. Tangney says. “I opened the rear door to the limousine and realized it was my family.” Lt. Tangney’s brother—Jennifer’s father, Chris—was laying on the floor, his legs wrapped around the service bar, broken in numerous places. The rest of the family was piled on top of each other. Jennifer’s mother, Denise, was severely injured, as was Jennifer’s husband, Neil, who tried to crawl out of the limo to get help despite his broken back. Five-year-old Grace was also trapped inside the wreckage. Jennifer, whose foot was injured, managed to climb out and was searching for Katie, who had been lying on the side seat before the crash. “We couldn’t find Kate,” Lt. Tangney says. Then, Jennifer made a devastating discovery—Katie had been decapitated by her seatbelt.
“Then all of a sudden Mrs. Flynn came out of the car with her child’s head in her hand,” says Michael Lerardi, one of the 70 paramedics and police officers who were called to the scene. “I got numb. I thought I was going to collapse. All she was holding was this kid’s head,” says Officer Christopher Pandolfo. “I looked into the back of the limousine and I saw Katie’s remains. She was wearing this dress and I just started shaking.” Jennifer walked to side of the road and sat for about an hour with her daughter’s head on her lap as she watched her family being cut out of the limousine. Lt. Tangney had to tell his niece it was time to leave. “She very lucidly, very calmly said she wasn’t going anywhere. She wasn’t leaving Kate,” he says. “I climbed into the ambulance and I told Jennifer that she’d have to come inside now because Grace needed her, and she said she’s not going to let go of Kate. And I asked her if she would give her to me, and at that point she turned her over, kissed her goodbye, and handed her to me.”
The accident took the lives of Katie and Stanley and left the rest of the family severely injured, physically and emotionally. Now, Jennifer and Neil are sharing their story. “Because no one should live the life that I live. I felt a responsibility, an obligation, to come and to tell our story,” Jennifer says. “I hope that by knowing the devastation that we lived through that night and still continue to live through, hopefully people are able to see and view the crime of drunk driving as it should be seen and viewed and that hopefully we’ll save lives.” Jennifer says her back was to the windshield when the crash occurred. She was holding her daughter Grace and Katie was lying down on the side seat of the limo with her seat belt on. Jennifer says she felt a sense of calm at the scene, although others told her she had been screaming. “I wasn’t worried for Kate because I do believe she’s in heaven,” she says. “At the time, I was more worried for us. I never, ever thought that Neil and I would be able to live without her.” As her family was extracted from the wreckage, Jennifer says she sat at the side of the road with Kate’s severed head and watched the scene for an hour. “I didn’t want to leave without the rest of my family,” she says. Neil, who had broken his back, tried to crawl out of the limo. “I heard my wife screaming, ‘Katie’s dead,’ and I didn’t want to accept it so I screamed back, ‘No, she’s just hurt real bad,'” he says. “I didn’t know what Jen knew then.”
Jennifer says time has passed in a blur since Katie’s death. “I can’t imagine I’m going to live maybe another 40 years without her,” she says. Neil says he wanted to die the night of the accident and he has often thought of suicide. “I’d take it now if I didn’t have more children. Life’s terrible. It’s miserable. The good part’s over. That was when we had all our kids,” he says. “We were a family. Now we’re stuck. We’re just struggling through for the good of our three other children.” Every day is a struggle, Neil and Jennifer say. “Everything I see my children do, I think Kate should be doing. Everything I know they’re going to do, I know Kate won’t do,” he says. “Every time you wake up, you say to yourself, ‘This is terrible. I went another day without her,’ you know? Or I have to face another day without her. And every night when I go to sleep, I made it through another day and I know it’s not going to get any better as long as I’m awake.” The accident has changed their marriage, Jennifer says. “The old Jennifer, when Neil would come home from work, might ask, ‘How was your day? What’s going on?’ And now I don’t care. And you don’t want to be that way,” she says. “What follows what happened to us?”
Denise and Chris, Jennifer’s parents, were also severely injured in the crash. Chris, a respected police officer, had to have his leg amputated. Still, the emotional wounds run deeper—they say the accident destroyed their once close-knit family. “We struggle to be a family that celebrates holidays together,” Denise says. As a respected police officer, Chris says he’s seen drunk drivers and pulled them over, but he never thought drunk driving could affect his family. “It really never occurred to me that this could happen to me. I hate to be naive. I know it happens,” he says.
On July 14, 2005, Martin Heidgen was charged with the second-degree murders of Stanley Rabinowitz and Katie Flynn. His trial began one year after the accident. After five days of jury deliberations, Martin Heidgen was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder and related charges. He’s serving his 18-year sentence at a correctional center in New York and is now appealing his case.
Jennifer hopes the verdict will demonstrate that not all drunk driving charges can be treated the same. “The way the jury deliberated over it, I think for people, they don’t want to think of drunk driving as murder,” she says. “So I think that that’s something that we hope, that you don’t have to lump all drunk driving into one charge. There is the extraordinarily reckless drunk driving which happened to us.”