'I feel gutted': Victims of parade crash speak at sentencing
Nearly a year after their lives were shattered when a man drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee, dozens of people who were hurt or saw their loved ones killed unleashed raw emotions and anger in court Tuesday as they begged the judge to put the driver away for life.
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 who was marching with his baseball team and three members of a group known as the Dancing Grannies. 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. Tuesday's sentencing hearing marked the first time victims and survivors could address Brooks, who rolled his eyes at some of their comments.
“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." She said that Brooks “violently ripped Jackson from our lives.”
One by one, Sparks and others recounted 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, survivor's guilt and depression. More than one parent said Brooks ran over children like "speed bumps"; multiple people said he was“evil."
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.
Aliesha Kulich, 18, is the daughter of Jane Kulich, who was among the people killed. She described looking for her mother in a hospital and seeing children bleeding and screaming in the waiting room. She said Brooks' conviction “doesn’t do crap for me" and won't bring back her mother, who never saw her go to prom or graduate, and won't see her get married.
“I’ve never felt so alone,” Aliesha Kulich said through tears. “I never thought I’d be capable of feeling this much pain in my life.”
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 the sentences will be consecutive, with no chance of parole. Nearly everyone who spoke Tuesday asked Judge Jennifer Dorow to give Brooks the maximum penalty when she sentences him Wednesday.
“All I ask is you rot, and you rot slow,” Chris Owen, son of Leanna Owen, one of the Dancing Grannies who was killed, said Tuesday.
Sparks talked about how her boys were marching in the parade with their baseball team, the Waukesha Blazers.
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. She found Tucker, 12, under a blanket — first identifying him by his shoes.
Both boys had traumatic head and brain injuries. Sparks told the judge it was “gut wrenching” to have to tell Tucker that his brother was not going to make it, saying the older boy blamed himself and felt he should've “done more to protect his little brother.”
Jessica Gonzalez, who was at the parade with her children, tearfully told the court her family was unharmed physically but is 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, and finally found her son, who was unharmed. Her daughter was also not physically hurt, but “the pain and terror continued.” Gonzalez said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that has forced her to quit her job as a teacher.
“The toll this event has taken on everyone, physical or not, is tremendous," she said.
Brooks told the judge this month that nine people will speak on his behalf, including his mother.
Brooks chose to represent himself during his trial. His interactions with victim witnesses were tense, but he generally treated them respectfully, and they kept their answers short.
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.
Brooks was handcuffed Tuesday as he sat at the defense table in orange jail garb orange and a surgical mask. At times he shook his head or looked down with his hands clasped.
He was briefly removed from the courtroom after asking the judge if he could respond to one of the victim statements. The judge denied the request and Brooks started talking over her. When Dorow warned him he was on the verge of being removed he responded: “Come with it.”
Tuesday’s hearing was paused for more than an hour after the judge took an abrupt, unexplained break. The sheriff later released a statement saying that an unknown caller had threatened a mass shooting. Security at the courthouse was increased.