By all appearances Kevin Tunell got off easy. Eight years ago he killed a young woman named Susan Herzog in a drunk-driving accident a mile from her home in Fairfax County, Va., near Washington, D.C. Tunell had been partying nearby on New Year’s Eve. Friends, noting his alcohol consumption, urged him not to drive but say that he bragged, “Nothing will ever happen to me.” On the road, he lost control of his Chrysler station wagon, which smashed into Susan’s blue Volkswagen. Rescue workers pronounced Susan dead at the scene.
After pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and drunk driving, the 17-year-old was sentenced to three years probation and a year of community service lecturing on the perils of drinking and driving. To settle a civil suit, he also agreed to an unusual penalty: He would send a check every week to Susan’s parents, Lou and Patty Herzog. The check would be made out to their daughter for $1—just a dollar—and he would send it every Friday for 18 years. Susan, the youngest of three daughters, was 18 when she was killed—on a Friday. In all, he would have to pay out exactly $936.
But the punishment apparently has been harder on Tunell than he first thought it would be. Last month, after the Herzogs took him to court for failing to send checks regularly over the past year, a tearful Tunell told Fairfax County Circuit Judge Jack Stevens that the agonizing guilt he felt each time he filled in Susan’s name had become too much to bear. “You get to a point where you kind of snap—and you say, it hurts too much,’ ” he later explained. Sentenced to 30 days in jail for contempt of court, he was released pending appeal. For the Herzogs, the sentence brought a measure of satisfaction, if no consolation. “Susan’s death is there every waking moment,” says Lou Herzog, 57. “But every time we don’t get a check, there’s only one thing that comes to our mind: He doesn’t remember.”
The evidence, however, seems to point to the contrary. From the outset Tunell performed his community service duties faithfully. With the help of a local film producer, he made two videos on the dangers of drunk driving. And after his year of speaking to schools and civic groups was finished, he continued donating his time to anyone who wanted him. In the mid-’80s, for instance, he traveled twice to the town of Sylvania, Ohio, to talk to students at area high schools. “They sat there on the gym floor, listening to Kevin’s story,” says Sgt. Wayne Seely of the Sylvania police force, who had heard of Tunell and sponsored the visits. “It was really overwhelming.”
And not just for the audience. Tunell says that he himself has been through “eight years of torture.” At his court hearing last month he said, “I used to, like, lie in bed, and if I heard the house settling, or noises, I used to think Susan was going to come to visit me.” At one point in the proceedings, Tunell (who now works as a radio dispatcher for an automobile-towing service and is taking photojournalism courses at a local college) presented the Herzogs with two boxes of pre-written checks, dated each week through 2001, a year longer than required. The couple refused to take them.
The Herzogs insist they are not being vindictive. “We do want him to remember,” says Patty, 56. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t want him to accept it—and get on with his life.” Indeed, the Herzogs appear to believe that only through his accountability can Tunell alleviate his guilt.
The Herzogs’ resolve to see justice done was intensified by another accident that touched their family. Incredibly, in 1987 the couple’s middle daughter, Deborah, now 28, was also hit by a drunk driver while she was driving a car in Florida. She suffered fractures in both legs, leaving her with a permanent limp. Since Susan’s death, both Lou, a retired Navy captain, and Patty, a former nurse, have become leaders in Mothers Against Drunk Driving (the Virginia plates on their two cars read MADD 1 and MADD 2). They and their organization argue that dealing sternly with offenders has a deterrent effect that is demonstrated by a reduction in drunk-driving deaths from about 23,000 in 1982 to 20,000 in 1988.
Sitting in his parents’ home last week, his eyes filling with tears, Tunell said in an interview with PEOPLE that if ordered to do so, he will serve his 30 days. Then, abruptly, he vowed, “From now on, without fail, I will write the checks. All I can do,” he said, “is to try to go on living—and to live as productively as possible.”
—Bill Hewitt, Tom Nugent in Fairfax County, Va.