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The gifts that will never be unwrapped

Nov. 27, 2017

Minneapolis police Sgt. Catherine Michal tells of the horrific crash in which her 16-year-old daughter, Deanna, died at the hand
Photo: Sgt. Catherine Michal tells of the horrific crash in which her 16-year-old daughter, Deanna, died at the hands of a drunk driver in 2006. Sgt. Michal is flanked by 74 holiday gifts that will never be opened: one for every person killed by a drunk driver in 2016.

Seventy-four bright packages. Seventy-four boxes full of wonder and possibility. Seventy-four gifts that will never be unwrapped: one for each person that was killed by a drunk driver last year. These 74 gifts represent, in stark, painful reality, how one person’s choice to drive while drunk can not only end a life, but have a profound impact on the family and loved ones who lost them.

Hitesh Patel should know: His 20-year-old niece, Ria, was killed by an alleged drunk driver on Sept. 17, 2017. Described by many as having “a golden heart,” Ria got into the car that night with someone who should not have been driving. After the crash, he fled the scene and evaded capture for two days. “He left her there to die. What was he thinking?” asks her uncle. Looking toward this first holiday season without Ria, Hitesh knows the massive hole that driver has torn in the fabric of their family: “We have been given a life sentence. A life sentence we can’t get out of.”

Sgt. Catherine Michal of the Minneapolis Police Department has served 11 years on that same life sentence. Her daughter, Deanna, was killed by a drunk driver in 2006, when she was just 16 years old. She describes, in gut-wrenching detail, how the collision caused by a drunk driver left Deanna in the left lane of the freeway, alive but injured, facing oncoming traffic. “What was she thinking?” wonders Sgt. Michal. “How did she feel?” And then, when a semi pulling two trailers slammed into Deanna’s car and sent her rolling over and over until she was ejected and her ruined car landed on top of her, “Did she know she was going to die?” That drunk driver is the reason a tortured mother returns again and again to thoughts of her daughter’s last moments. He’s the reason Sgt. Michal hasn’t put up a Christmas tree since Deanna died: She just can’t. The memories make it too painful.

Sgt. Michal and Hitesh Patel both have impassioned pleas. To those who would consider getting into a car with someone who has been drinking, Hitesh says, “If you don’t feel comfortable, speak out. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t get in the car.” And to anyone who would get behind the wheel while impaired, he requests, “Please don’t drink and drive, because you’re ruining more than one life.” Sgt. Michal’s sentiments are similar: “My request, my plea to everybody, is make good choices. We can do it. Don’t get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol.”

Bob Hawkins was a police officer for 34 years before he became the assistant commissioner for the Department of Public Safety. He was dispatched to many horrific DWI crashes and witnessed the carnage of each scene, but by far the worst was pulling up to a family’s house at 1 or 2 in the morning to tell them that their loved one has died. “They’d see me standing there in my uniform, and they knew immediately that their lives were going to be turned upside down in the most awful way.”

That’s why over 300 Minnesota law enforcement agencies have extra enforcement on the roads on weekends through December 30: The holidays tend to bring about more poor decisions like the ones that killed Ria and Deanna. So be sure to plan a sober ride when you go out to celebrate the holidays. Your responsible choice could be the reason someone can be with their family to open their gift.