Two mothers have change of heart after facing drunken driver in court

From the time of the fatal wreck in January 2009, Peggy Pierce's waking thought almost every day was of her dead son, Joshua Carter. Next would come feelings of hatred for the drunken driver who killed him, Erica Kolanowski, 31, of Arlington.

On that winter night, Carter, 20, and his 21-year-old friend Matthew Lundy pulled into a busy Arlington intersection on a green light and were broadsided by Kolanowski, who had hurtled down Green Oaks Boulevard in an SUV at more than 70 mph and ran a red light. Carter was killed almost instantly, and Lundy was permanently maimed.

After a night of drinking at two Arlington bars, Kolanowski's blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit.

So last week, at Kolanowski's trial in Fort Worth on intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault charges, Pierce expected her hatred to intensify as she saw the defendant in person for the first time.

"I didn't know how I could be in the same room with her and not try to strangle her," Pierce said Saturday. "But when I was testifying, the minute I looked in her eyes -- she was hysterical -- I saw raw emotion. It wasn't like, 'I'm scared that I might have to go to prison.' It was more like, 'I would do anything in the world to give you your son back.'

"That night, when we got home, I told my husband, 'I'll admit this to you but not anyone else. When I looked into her eyes, I didn't feel hate. I felt compassion.'"

Unknown to Pierce, Lundy's mother, Vicki Hanzelka, experienced many of the same feelings, especially after a Tarrant County jury sentenced the first-time offender to 16 years in prison on the manslaughter charge. It was an unusually stiff sentence for a defendant who had never been in trouble before.

Kolanowski was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for intoxication assault and fined $6,000 in each case. A judge ruled that the sentences could be served concurrently.

Pierce and Hanzelka had urged prosecutors for months to seek a long prison term and said they feel that the sentence was justified, hoping that it might deter others. But their bitterness had changed into something quite different.

After the verdict, when Hanzelka confronted Kolanowski from the witness stand, she described round-the-clock hospital vigils in the months after the crash, the excruciating therapy Lundy still requires, and his family's financial devastation because the injured man did not have health insurance.

"As I gave my victim's impact statement, I began to realize how difficult the jury's decision had been," Hanzelka wrote on her Web site the day after Thursday's verdict. "At some point, looking into Erica's eyes and watching her ... something happened. I am sick with grief and fear for Erica. When I think of her in [prison] I'm absolutely petrified for her. ... This is not what I expected to feel and honestly, to be quite frank, this is not what I want to feel. ... But she is still a human being ... she is someone's child ... she is someone's mate."

Change of heart

Pierce said she was "astounded" by her change of heart. Hanzelka said she was "shocked." The night of the verdict, the two mothers talked by telephone, and were relieved to learn that they shared similar feelings.

"I didn't want her to feel that I was betraying Josh or his memory by feeling that way," Hanzelka said. "She said she had very similar feelings. ... I think we saw Erica not as this horrible monster that hurt our boys. She was a small and fairly weak-looking human being. I asked Matt last night if he felt any compassion for Erica and he said: 'No. She got what she deserved.' I said, 'Well, you know, Erica wasn't perfect before this happened, but honey, were you?'

"Matt never drank and drove, but he could have made a poor decision that could have landed us in a horrible situation," Hanzelka said. "I think it really opened his eyes to the fact that we could easily have been on the other side of this story. I'm just sick for all of us."

During the trial, Kolanowski's friends and relatives described her as a quiet, deeply spiritual person who had made a tragic mistake. The defendant's mother, Mary Adams Powers, who works with the poor in Michigan and founded a hepatitis C foundation in that state, said her daughter shared a similar concern for the downtrodden. Kolanowski's attorney asked jurors to assess her probation. After the trial, Powers could not be reached for comment.

On Saturday, as they tried to sort through conflicting feelings, Pierce and Hanzelka said an emotional burden had been lifted.

"I carried hate around since that night, and I was beginning to drown in it," Pierce said. "I think she should be punished. Josh and Matt got life sentences. I think this is a light sentence compared to what they got. But she's sorry for what she did. I hate what she did. I hate the choice she made, but I don't hate her."

The night of the verdict, Pierce lay in bed, thinking of her son, but also of Kolanowski.

"I just knew how scared she must be," Pierce said.

TIM MADIGAN, 817-390-7544