“I would bet that everyone in this courtroom has looked away from the road while driving,” Judge Mark Vandelist said to rows filled with friends and family of both the late Joseph Tikalsky and defendant Susan Ann Russo.
Russo struck and killed Joseph Tikalsky on Oct. 28 as he collected his morning newspaper from a box on the road. Tikalsky was wearing a reflective vest at the time and was on break from his routes as a school bus driver, a job he didn’t need but continued because he loved being with kids.
The judge told Russo, “I know you regret your mistake.”
Amid teary statements from Tikalsky’s family and Russo herself about the personal tragedy, there was a call for help with distracted driving laws, especially pertaining to electronic devices.
Tikalsky’s youngest son Greg told the court he’s begun lobbying for tougher laws — to no avail. “We have to view distracted driving as we view drunk driving,” he said, adding that the latter was once more socially accepted than it is now.
Tikalsky’s widow, Emma Jean, said of her late husband, “I would wish the way he died might be an example to other drivers to forgo electronics and concentrate on driving.”
The judge gave Russo a sentence that had been agreed upon by the prosecutor and the defense under a plea deal.
She will spend four days in the county jail divided in two stints coinciding with the anniversary of Tikalsky’s death.
The case underscored how difficult prosecuting distracted driving incidents can be. Reading or sending texts while behind the wheel, even when stopped at a light, is illegal under Minnesota law.
Russo told officers at the scene of the crash that she was reading a text before the crash and preparing to send one. But after she entered her plea, a forensic investigation found no activity or texts on her phone.
Based on the forensics results, she attempted Monday to withdraw her plea. Vandelist denied that motion, saying regardless of whether she was texting, she should have seen Tikalsky on that road.
Russo serves her first two days beginning Oct. 28 and the next on the same date in 2017.
Vandelist put Russo on probation for two years, barring her from having active electronic devices in her vehicle or using drugs or alcohol.
She also must do 40 hours of community service for Minnesotans for Safe Driving within the next year and pay $3,000.
Russo had told the court she thinks about Tikalsky every day and would trade places with him if she could.
After the court session ended and nearly everyone had left, Emma Jean Tikalsky and her daughter Mary Jo Dorman approached Russo in the hallway and hugged her.
Tikalsky said it was a moment of forgiveness she had long prayed for.
Dorman said, “I wanted her to see that we’re moving on and she should, too.”