TAMPA — A $100,000 check from an insurance company remains uncashed. Family members of a homeless woman killed in a hit-and-run crash three months ago say it’s not about money.
They want the driver to take responsibility. They want justice.
Since the accident, their emotions have gone from shock to anguish to rage. The object of their ire: the suspected driver’s family and their attorneys, as well as a justice system that hasn’t made anyone accountable for Melissa Sjostrom’s death.
The check, dated March 3, was sent to an attorney representing Sjostrom’s family. They agree it should go to a college fund for Sjostrom’s 14-year-old son, Dylan. But there also are bills — $58,000 from Tampa General Hospital for treating Sjostrom the night she died. Beyond that, there are attorney’s fees and $267,000 for past hospital visits.
“How do you put a (dollar) value on someone’s life?” Marylou Hansen, Sjostrom’s adoptive mother, wrote in an e-mail to the Times. “Melissa did not live a lifestyle that most people would find appealing. But her life had value, especially to her son.”
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Police say they know whose vehicle struck Sjostrom, but they can’t prove who was driving. A traffic ticket for careless driving issued to 17-year-old Jordan Valdez of Tampa was thrown out last week due to a lack of evidence.
Sjostrom’s mother, Connie Wheeler, and her aunt, Lisa Mott, can’t make sense of it. Wheeler moved in with Mott in Kentucky after the accident and has sunk into depression, crying every day.
They are outraged that someone left Sjostrom alone to die, and acted as if it never happened. “We know that we cannot sit back and accept this,” Mott said. Detectives, she said, told her three days after the accident that a teenage girl was driving. Last week, they hired Kentucky attorney Andre Busald.
The Valdez family, Busald told them, wanted to apologize in person to Sjostrom’s family in Kentucky and California, Mott said. Busald did not say in the meeting who made the offer. Neither he nor the teen’s attorney, Ty Trayner, could be reached for comment.
Eddie Suarez, an attorney for Valdez’s father, would not say whether the offer was made.
Sjostrom’s family say they won’t even listen to an apology unless Valdez admits to a criminal charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death. “It’s too easy to just utter the words and not really mean them,” Hansen wrote. They want Valdez to lose her license for several years, serve time on probation with drug and alcohol testing, attend counseling and talk to students about her experience.
“I think jail is too easy,” Hansen wrote.
Only then would they accept an explanation and an apology.
Mott recently wrote a letter to Jordan Valdez that she has yet to send. “We would rather take quarters from complete strangers than accept hush/blood money from your family!”
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Mott said she was shocked to hear the suspect was a young girl and could imagine her own child in this situation. If it were, Mott said, she would want her child to take responsibility.
Mott described the moment that police said they suspected a teenager. “Now all kinds of emotions are flooding my brain and my body. My first words to Detective Powell are, 'Oh my God, that poor child. This is going to affect them forever.’ ... My motherly instinct kicks in and I am now torn ... My thoughts and words are now all coming from compassion and shock,” she wrote in the letter to Valdez.
• • • After Sjostrom’s estate is filed in probate court, her family could bring a wrongful death lawsuit. Exactly what a successful claim would be worth and who gets paid are less clear.
Sjostrom’s son, Dylan, could get compensated for lost parental companionship and mental anguish, said Richard Hirsch, a Tampa attorney not involved in the case. Her estate could also be responsible for Sjostrom’s medical bills, funeral expenses and other debts.
A judge would most likely allocate the funds to each claim with the son’s portion separated into a guardianship, if it were more than $15,000, keeping it safe from creditors, Hirsch said.
• • • Sjostrom lived with Dylan until he was 4, then visited him for two years. After moving to Florida, she kept up with him by phone. They hadn’t spoken since last summer, in part because Hansen wanted to shield Dylan from the details of his mother’s lifestyle. Still, Dylan is angry about losing his mother and knows she was killed in a hit-and-run crash. He heard the driver was a teenager. Hansen, who is raising him, says he won’t get his license before he’s 18.
Dylan, Mott wrote, is “angry, confused and in therapy as well. As for the rest of us, we are past the shock, still grieving and madder than hell!”
Sjostrom’s family ultimately wants to channel their anger into strengthening hit-and-run laws. They would start by better educating teenage drivers.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.