The Vander Hart family has spent the past 18 months struggling to find forgiveness in their hearts.
Linda Vander Hart, 71, of Des Moines was killed by a drunk driver on Dec. 17, 2020. The crash came just hours after the death of 46-year-old Jim Bartels of Altoona, her former son-in-law, in a separate crash. She and her husband Dan were on their way to console their daughter, Bartels' ex-wife, when they were rear-ended at a stoplight by 67-year-old Bertoldo Zuniga.
Police determined Zuniga's blood alcohol limit was more than twice the legal limit for intoxication and that he had been driving at more than 70 mph.
Those back-to-back tragedies ha 1 ve rocked their survivors and left them angry, depressed and heartbroken. Nevertheless, several family members took the stand Thursday at Zuniga's sentencing for vehicular homicide to tell him they forgave him.
"I forgive you, Mr. Zuniga, because not doing so would have left a heavy weight in my heart," said Dan Vander Hart, who was seriously injured in the crash and suffered permanent damage to his jaw.
Zuniga, now 69, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by OWI and serious injury by OWI, and was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. There is no mandatory minimum sentence, and prosecutor Jaki Livingston said the Polk County Attorney's Office will not intervene when Zuniga seeks parole, meaning he could serve much less time before being released.
Forgiveness was on Zuniga's mind as well, and he broke down in tears when addressing the court and the Vander Hart family while entering his guilty plea.
"The family that lost a woman, it hurts me in my soul. She had no fault," he said through an interpreter. "I ask the family to forgive me. I've been thinking and thinking about them and the harm I've caused."
Linda Vander Hart's husband and children each spoke about her importance to their family and the absence left by her death, with her husband of 49 years calling her "the glue that held us together." Stephanie Bartels, their daughter, said in a statement read by her brother that she remains wracked with guilt knowing that her mother, who she spoke with nearly every day, was coming to comfort her over her ex's death when she was killed.
Bartels has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the deaths of her mother and ex-husband, as have two of her three children.
"How do I show my children how to move on and find happiness?" she asked.
Shane Vander Hart said that after his mother's death, he found himself hating Zuniga, and hating feeling that way. A year and a half later, he said, he's in a better place.
"I can no longer hate Mr. Zuniga," he said. "When I was in college, I made some stupid choices with alcohol, and my story could have been his story. By the grace of God, it wasn't."
"Mr. Zuniga, I can honestly say I forgive you," he said. "It's been a process."
Family members spoke repeatedly about their Christian faith, both how important it had been to Linda Vander Hart and how much they had relied upon it after her death. They said they were praying for Zuniga as well.
Dan Vander Hart urged Zuniga to seek forgiveness from Jesus, not just from the family, and said that all will be judged for their actions before they can enter heaven.
"I truly pray that I will see you there, Mr. Zuniga," he said.
Even in forgiveness, several family members said it's important that Zuniga face consequences. Stephanie Bartels in her statement asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
"I'm called to forgiveness, even though you've shown no remorse," she wrote. "I hope it will set me free."
Judge Joseph Seidlin acknowledged that he could make the sentences for Zuniga's two convictions consecutive, for a total of 30 years, but said he didn't think it would make any practical difference and, in any case, was not necessary.
"I do want Mr. Zuniga, and everyone else in this room, to know that to be remorseful, to take responsibility for one's actions, to seek forgiveness, means something," Seidlin said. "It doesn't replace anything, but it means something."
And as Linda Vander Hart's family has begun to reconcile itself with the man who caused her death, her son Shane said he believes she has room in her heart as well.
"I pray one day you and my Mom will embrace in heaven," he told Zuniga.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines man gets 25 years for OWI crash killing 71-year-old woman