‘I feel gutted’: Victims of parade crash speak at sentencing

Judge Jennifer Dorow set aside Tuesday for victim impact statements and Wednesday for sentencing.
FILE - A family visits a memorial at Veteran's Park for the victims of Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021's...
FILE - A family visits a memorial at Veteran's Park for the victims of Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021's deadly Christmas parade crash in Waukesha, Wis. on Nov. 23, 2021. A Wisconsin judge is poised to decide Friday whether Darrell Brooks, Jr.,a Milwaukee man accused of plowing his SUV through a suburban Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring dozens more, will stand trial.(Jeffrey Phelps | AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps File)
Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 11:05 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2022 at 2:36 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Dozens of people who were hurt or saw their loved ones killed or injured when a man drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee spoke Tuesday about the sheer terror of the crash, as well as the physical and mental anguish that followed, as they delivered raw, tearful statements during the man’s sentencing hearing.

Darrell Brooks Jr. drove his red Ford Escape through the parade in downtown Waukesha on Nov. 21, 2021. Six people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy. Scores of others were injured. A jury convicted Brooks last month of 76 charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and 61 counts of reckless endangerment.

“I feel gutted and broken. It hurts to breathe sometimes,” said Sheri Sparks, the mother of Jackson Sparks, the 8-year-old who was killed. “My mama’s soul aches for him. … This man not only took Jackson away from our family, he violently ripped Jackson from our lives.”

One by one, Sparks and others told of how they had been affected by the horrors of the crash. They talked about having nightmares, and reliving the screams of mothers searching for their children. They described painful injuries, surgeries and physical therapy. More than one parent said Brooks ran over children “like speed bumps”; multiple people said he was pure “evil” — though some said they forgave him.

Sasha Catalan, who was 17 and playing her clarinet in the parade with the Waukesha South marching band, said in a soft, wavering voice that she wonders if it would have been better if she had died in someone else’s place. Another 17-year-old band member said in a written statement, which was read in court, that their sousaphone saved their life when they were dragged by Brooks’ SUV — but the depression that followed left them unable to graduate with classmates.

Nearly all of those who spoke Tuesday morning asked Judge Jennifer Dorow to give Brooks the maximum penalty when she sentences him on Wednesday. Donald Tiegs, the father of an injured teenager, said in a written statement that was read in court: “It’s too bad the state doesn’t have the death penalty, because you would be put to the front of the line. I hope you rot in hell.” Brooks nodded as those comments were read and patted his chest with his palm.

Brooks, 40, almost certainly will spend the rest of his life in prison since each homicide count carries a mandatory life sentence. Legal experts said they expect Dorow to make the life sentences consecutive, with no chance of parole.

The crash left deep scars across southeastern Wisconsin that still haven’t healed. Several witnesses wept on the stand during Brooks’ trial as they described how the SUV barreled through the crowd, sending bodies flying through the air. Someone in the gallery yelled, “Burn in hell,” as Dorow read the guilty verdicts last month.

Brooks chose to represent himself during his trial despite overwhelming evidence against him. His interactions with victim witnesses were tense, but he generally treated them respectfully, and they kept their answers short. Tuesday was the victims’ first chance to confront Brooks while he is forced to sit and listen.

Brooks was handcuffed as he sat at the defense table Tuesday, wearing an orange T-shirt and face mask. He rolled his eyes during some of the victims’ statements, and at times closed his eyes, shook his head, or bowed his head with his hands clasped in front of him. At one point he paged through a book.

Sparks talked about how her boys were marching in the parade with their baseball team, the Waukesha Blazers. They had decorated a truck and filled some balloons, and she went to go sit and watch.

“I had no idea then, the nightmare that was coming my way,” she said. “Nor did I know that it would be the last time that I would hear Jackson’s voice and see his smile.”

After the red SUV plowed through the crowd, she ran toward her boys. She saw Jackson in the arms of a police officer who was running to get him medical attention. Her husband told her that their older son, Tucker, was also hurt. She found Tucker, 12, under a blanket — first identifying him by his shoes that were sticking out.

Both boys had traumatic head and brain injuries and were in the children’s hospital ICU. The next day, Tucker asked about Jackson. Sparks told the judge it was “gut wrenching” to have to tell Tucker that his little brother was not going to make it. “Tucker blamed himself. He felt he should’ve tried to grab Jackson or done more to protect his little brother,” she said.

The statements from victims were emotional — at times the judge and prosecutors were seen dabbing their eyes.

Jessica Gonzalez, who was at the parade with her children, tearfully told the court that her family was unharmed physically, but are emotionally and mentally scarred. Her son was on Jackson Sparks’ baseball team, and when she saw the SUV, she ran toward the team, screaming for her son.

“I found Jackson first,” she said, as she cried. “I saw his little body in his Blazers’ jersey. His eyes looking up. Looking nowhere. I knew he was hurt badly.” She said she heard children crying “Mom!” from many directions, but none of them were her son, until he said “Mama, I’m here. I was on the other side.”

She said she found her son unharmed. Her daughter was also not physically hurt, but “the pain and terror continued.” Gonzalez said she suffers from guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder that has forced her to quit her job as a teacher.

“When he suggested he could’ve hit more, he was wrong. He hit everyone,” she said. “The toll this event has taken on everyone, physical or not, is tremendous.”

Brooks told the judge this month that nine people will speak on his behalf, including his mother.

The monthlong trial was punctuated by erratic outbursts from Brooks, who refused to answer to his own name, frequently interrupted Dorow and often refused to stop talking. The judge often had bailiffs move him to another courtroom where he could participate via video but she could mute his microphone.

After he was removed from the main courtroom during jury selection, he removed his shirt, sat on the defense table bare-chested and stuck down his pants a sign he’d been given to signal objections. Later in the trial, he built a small fort out of his boxes of legal documents and hid behind it so the camera couldn’t pick up his face.

Tuesday’s hearing was paused for more than an hour after the judge took an abrupt, unexplained break. Dorow returned and apologized, explaining that authorities had received a threat to the courthouse. As she resumed the proceeding, she said: “The sheriff has assured me that this building is quite safe.”

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Forliti reported from Minneapolis; Richmond reported from Madison, Wisconsin.