Sharon Salvador was talking with her sister, Helene Nuesca, on Halloween morning in 2005, when the line was abruptly disconnected — something that, at first, didn’t merit a second thought.
“On the island, we have a lot of dead spots,” Salvador said, noting that the last words Helene said weren’t overtly alarming.
“‘Oh, baby,’ was all I heard her say,” Salvador said. “Then the phone went dead.”
Those words Salvador heard from her sister was the last sentence anyone alive within the Nuesca family would ever hear Helene say.
That’s because the conversation between the sisters had been cut short when Jameel Ramirez slammed head-on into the car in which Helene and her husband Louis, as well as their son Robert, were traveling. Before the fatal accident, Ramirez had been cited twice for speeding.
The crash killed Helene Nuesca on impact and her husband, Louis Nuesca, died 34 days later.
Their son, Robert, who survived, is permanently brain damaged and cannot communicate.
In Robert’s last words before going into emergency surgery, he was asking about his mother’s health status.
“He said, ‘You know how much mommy loved Jesus? I saw the light come out of my mommy. She put her head back, and they took her,’” Salvador said, quoting her nephew yesterday at Ramirez’s sentencing.
Recounting daily exchanges with her mom, Danette Nuesca, Helene’s eldest child, said she remembered her mom using the same word she said right before she died, “baby,” but in a lighter context.
“Every single day my mom would call me and say, ‘Hi baby, what we going to do today?’” she said. “They were my life. I have lost my life.”
As punishment for the fatal crash, 21-year-old Ramirez was ordered yesterday to serve two 10-year sentences and one one-year sentence for two charges of first-degree negligent homicide and one charge of negligent injury.
Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe could have chosen a sentence ranging from probation without jail time to as many as 42 years in jail, she said.
“This is not something you intentionally did, however, this was an avoidable accident,” Watanabe said.
“I have no doubt you didn’t intend to kill two people and cause brain damage to a third, but it was very troubling to this court that this was not the first time you were caught driving at an excessive speed. You were cited not once, but twice before. That didn’t result in loss of life, but that should have taught you something. ”
Ramirez was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol in the crash, a fact that underscored the argument that he should have known better, daughter and sister Eleanor Nuesca said. “I know it’s hard, but he is responsible for what he did,” she said. “They said he wasn’t on drugs or alcohol, so he knew what he was doing.”
Eleanor Nuesca said it has been particularly hard to move on because she and her mom had an argument the week she died, and she never had the chance to apologize.
Prosecuting Attorney Marc Guyot said anger was the force behind Ramirez’s lethal driving, as before getting behind the wheel of his car that morning, Ramirez had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend.
Guyot also said Ramirez had been witnessed weaving in and out of traffic before the collision and that he was driving at 57 mph in a 25-mph zone.
Though the Nuescas had pulled over to avoid getting hit by Ramirez, their attempt to avoid the collision failed, Guyot added.
Explaining the suffering Ramirez’s reckless driving caused to her family, Eleanor Nuesca gave several examples in court of the daily reminders left behind by the accident that her family has had to bear.
“I have to take my kids to the gravesite to see their grandparents. I can’t call them, I can’t talk to them — I can, but I don’t get any response,” she said.
“I talk to my brother now but don’t get a response from him either. Seeing him live in that bed is hard, knowing how he was before.”
Though the attorney for Ramirez described the past year and a half of his client’s life as a “nightmare,” Mercedes Nuesca, Robert’s wife, explained her own tragic reality — one that includes caring for her permanently brain-damaged husband.
“I have to look at the man I married 19 years ago,” she said, fighting back tears. “We were supposed to grow old together. Now I take care of him and try to make normalcy of what we have left. I can’t hate what I don’t know — I don’t hate (Ramirez). I’m just so angry that one day, one stupid act, turned my whole world upside down.”
Choosing love over hate would have been what Helene Nuesca would have wanted, family members said, as throughout their grieving processes, they have tried to evoke the same grace, clarity and forgiveness for which she was known.
“When I found out, I went nuts. I wanted, honest to God, to kill this boy,” Salvador told Watanabe. “But my son told me, ‘What would auntie want you to do? She’d want us to go to her son because we can’t do anything for her right now.’”
After the sentencing, tearful members of the Nuesca family threw their arms around police officers who helped investigate the case, with special attention to Officer Jason Overmeyer.
Overmeyer was the lead investigator who had to reconstruct what happened leading up to the crash, for whom Traffic Safety Officer Robert Gausepohl offered praise.
“Officer Overmeyer did an excellent job. That’s why we are where we are now,” he said.