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Victim's family unites in Tampa for teenager's sentencing in crash

TAMPA — The day after Melissa Sjostrom's broken body was left by a hit-and-run driver on a dark street, two women who mothered her connected for the first time.

Sjostrom's aunt in Kentucky, Lisa Mott, called Marylou Hansen in California and told her the freckled, talkative woman whom Hansen adopted as a child was dead.

From afar, they've plotted Tampa streets, read news stories and hired an attorney. They watched as police tried, gave up, and finally pinned a case on teenager Jordan Valdez.

The two women will meet today for the first time when they land in Tampa to attend Valdez's sentencing Tuesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Mott and Hansen plan to stay at the same hotel and share a rental car. They'll meet Tuesday morning with prosecutors and hear Valdez's statements about the night she hit Sjostrom.

Before they return home for Thanksgiving, the two women will drive Hyde Park Avenue, where Sjostrom, 33, was knocked out of her shoes during the crash. Later, they'll cross over to Davis Islands, where Valdez, now 17, lives.

And they'll sprinkle Sjostrom's cremated remains in a garden at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

• • •

Through the roller coaster of emotions following the Feb. 8 hit-and-run, both Mott and Hansen have shielded vulnerable family members.

Hansen, 58, an accountant in California, doesn't want Sjostrom's 15-year-old son, Dylan, to know the details of how his mother lived on Tampa's streets.

She and her former husband, Greg Sjostrom, adopted Missy when she was 7, along with her younger brother, Joseph, 5. They enrolled the children in a Christian school and took them to soccer games.

Hansen got custody of Sjostrom's son, Dylan, when he was a toddler. Sjostrom hadn't been responsible at the time, according to family members. Dylan has been in counseling to deal with his mother's death, Hansen said, and she wouldn't bring him to Tampa.

"I'd be too concerned about him hearing a lot of negative things said about his mom," Hansen said by e-mail. Sjostrom's brother Joseph, now 33, also lives with her. Hansen said her ex-husband is coming with her.

Mott, 48, is caring for her father, who has cancer. She worries about Connie Wheeler, who is her sister and Sjostrom's birth mother. Wheeler lives in Fort Lauderdale with her husband and has a developmental disability. Because she's been distraught since her daughter's death, Wheeler's husband is staying home with her this week.

"She dreams that Valdez will get 30 years in jail," Mott said. "We try to tell her that's not happening."

Valdez, 17, a senior at Academy of the Holy Names, is charged as an adult with leaving the scene of an accident with death.

On Tuesday, her attorney has said, Valdez will plead guilty. Prosecutors aren't seeking prison time.

• • •

That night they first talked, Mott worried Hansen wouldn't take her call. Hansen had the same reservations.

Sjostrom had left Hansen's home as a young adult and returned to her birth mother's house in Florida, next door to Mott. Sjostrom had a difficult time accepting her adoptive mother and resented her for keeping her son. She often talked about getting him back.

After that first phone call, the women bonded, talking for hours by phone, sometimes daily.

They came to know each other on a new level.

"As far as I'm concerned," Mott said, "Marylou's an angel for adopting two kids, both with special needs."

Neither woman is happy with Tampa police and prosecutors' case against Valdez.

For months, Mott said, they've asked to see Valdez's statements to prosecutors. Without knowing all the facts of what Valdez says happened that night, Mott and Hansen say their victim impact statements may be incomplete.

They haven't started writing them yet.

"There's so many unanswered questions," Mott said.

Defense attorney Ty Trayner plans to bring a group of people to the sentencing to speak on behalf of Valdez.

Sjostrom's boyfriend, Leonard "Ozzy" Kurtz, said many of her homeless friends will also be there.

"Our first reaction hearing it was a 16-year-old girl — we all had compassion. We should have been thinking of responsibility," Mott said.

Neither have given a thought yet to Thanksgiving.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Victim's family unites in Tampa for teenager's sentencing in crash 11/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 1:34am]
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