You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Texting driver killed a 79-year-old man. Her sentence: 4 days in jail.

The Washington Post The Washington Post 2 days ago Travis M. Andrews

On Oct. 28, Joseph Tikalsky took a short break between routes in New Prague, Minn.

Though he was 79 years old and could have long since retired, he still drove a school bus because he enjoyed the youthful vigor of the children.

“He loved those kids,” Craig Most, the district’s director of operations told the Star Tribune. “He told me every year he enjoyed it, and he’d keep doing it as long as he enjoyed it.”

It had been his calling for 50 years, complete with his signature Friday announcement — “It’s Friday! Whoopee!”

That dark and rainy Wednesday morning was just another in a blur of shifts.

At around 7:35 a.m., he put coffee on. As its aroma filled the house with a promise of warmth in the midst of a Minnesota autumn, Tikalsky walked out to grab a copy of the morning’s newspaper.

He crossed the country road to his mailbox. Though it was dark, he had already donned his reflective vest, a highlighter-yellow jacket with reflective white stripes, according to the Star Tribune. Any drivers in the vicinity would easily notice its bright colors and be sure to avoid him.

Susan Ann Russo © Le Sueur Co. Sheriff’s Office Susan Ann Russo Not Susan Russo.

The 48-year-old schoolteacher might have seen Tikalsky, if she had been paying attention.

Instead, she decided to answer a text message from her daughter while driving her van down County Road 29.

Russo struck Tikalsky in the road, his coffee still brewing inside. All she saw, according to the Le Center Leader, was a “yellow color blur.” She called 911, but it was too late.

He was pronounced dead at the scene.

A few days later, as Russo was charged for reckless driving, a gross misdemeanor, and misuse of a wireless communication device, also a misdemeanor.

Tikalsky’s daughter Mary Jo Dorman found 40 bags of fun-size candy bars among her dad’s things. Dorman realized Tikalsky planned to give them to the kids that Friday, as a Halloween treat. So she, her two brothers Joe III and Greg and five of Tikalsky’s grandchildren climbed onto the bus Friday morning with two wicker baskets overflowing with the candy.

“This is your bus driver’s family,” Greg Tikalsky, a New Prague High School teacher and wrestling coach, told the children, according to the Star Tribune. “He had a lot of candy set aside that he wanted to get to you guys today. We wanted to make sure it happened.”

Eventually on Aug. 16, Russo entered a guilty plea to both charges, KSTP reported. As part of the plea deal, the misuse of a wireless communication device charge was dropped.

But, though she told investigators she had been texting at the time, a forensic investigation uncovered no evidence of texting or other activity on her phone.

She later attempted to retract the plea on Sept. 30, but District Judge Mark Vandelist denied the motion, pointing out she should have seen the 79-year-old regardless of whether she was texting.

On Monday, District Judge Mark Vandelist offered a sentence seemingly designed to ensure she remains conscious of her crime.

Atop 40 hours of community service with Minnesotans for Safe Driving, two years of supervised probation and a $3,080 fine that will partially be used to pay for a public service announcement about the dangers of texting and driving, Russo will serve only four days in prison, Le Center Leader reported.

But those four days will be split into two-day stints, the first beginning this Oct. 28 and the second beginning on Oct. 28, 2017 — the first and second anniversary of Tikalsky’s death.

“Use that gift that God gave you to educate others about this issue,” Vandelist said, referring to texting and driving as an “epidemic,” according to the Mankato Free Press.

Added Vandelist, “I would bet that everyone in this courtroom has looked away from the road while driving.”

Tikalsky’s youngest son, Greg, who said his dad “brought nobility to driving a bus,” pushed the court to enact harsher punishments for texting and driving, perhaps punishments more in line with those for drinking and driving.

“As the number of apps on our phones increases, the addiction to reach for the phone is only going to become greater,” he said. “Our phones have become inseparable from their user.”

Added Greg, echoing the judge, “I see an unchecked epidemic. I can’t sit idly.”

Distracted driving claims a staggering number of lives in the United States each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight people are killed every day by distracted drivers. In addition, 1,161 people are injured daily in crashes involving a distracted driver.

Using a cellphone while driving likely makes up a large part of these distracted drivers. According to the CDC, 69 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 64 have reported to talking on their cellphones while driving in the 30 days before taking the survey. Meanwhile, 31 percent admitted to reading or sending a text or an email while driving within 30 days of taking the survey.

At the hearing, Emma Jean Tikalsky, the deceased’s wife of 54 years, reflected on her marriage.

“I need to thank him for entering rooms and lighting them up for me,” she said.

Russo cried as she read a letter of apology to the court.

“I will spend my entire life trying to make up for my mistake,” she said.

Following Monday’s sentencing, Emma approached Russo in the hallway. With Emma was her daughter Mary Jo Dorman. They had never met Russo before.

They reached out and embraced the woman who had accidentally taken Tikalsky’s life.

“I wanted her to see that we’re moving on and she should, too,” Dorman said, according to the Reading Eagle.

“We cried together and they begged us, my daughter and myself, ‘Would you please find it in your heart to forgive us?’” Emma told CBS. “I knew that was the Godlike thing I would be expected to do and we did. We said yes.”

Added Emma, “Four days or 400 days, it really doesn’t matter. I know she didn’t mean to kill anyone.”

More from The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon