Impact Statement read by Pam O’Donnell on May 23, 2019
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak. With all due respect I have to be very real and raw and honest in memory of my husband/daughter/ father/sister/coach and my now only daughter. I started this impact statement the night of the crash over three years ago (1186 days to be exact) and now that the time came to put it all in writing I found it to be incredibly hard while being physically and emotionally draining. I thought because I started it so early, it would be easy when this moment came, well it is not. Where does one begin and end in telling how the slaughter of half a family; a father, husband, coach, friend to many, teacher, my partner and my now only daughter’s hero; the slaughter of a 5 year old little girl who was our daughter, our life, our heart, our joy, our troublemaker #2 as her daddy would say, a keeper of secrets, a player of dress up, singer, dancer, sister and best friend to my now only daughter Ali impacted our lives? None of it makes any sense, none of it, so I will try my hardest to make it coherent for everyone here today and maybe just maybe the someone in the courtroom today would truly understand what happened since we have failed to see any remorse in all the hearings, in all the testimony, in all the statements since it happened.
By now you may have read the letters that were given to you from co-workers, friends, students, players, members of the community and should have an idea of the people that they were and what the world has lost with them gone. I am respectfully asking that the defendant get a copy of all the letters with names and addresses redacted as part of the punishment and the person responsible for starting the chain of events of 2/22/16 be made to have to read each and every one of them during his time in prison.
Even with all those letters I’d like to share some very personal stories of the father, coach, teacher and husband that was taken far too soon and the our little girl that wanted to grow up and be a cancer curing singing doctor:
In 2014 we endured what thought would be the most difficult time in our lives as a family, On mother’s day weekend I was diagnosed with an extremely rare head and neck cancer that should have killed me. I spent a better part of 2014 in the hospital and there was NOT one day that went by that my husband Tim made sure I saw our girls, albeit most times was from the window as I was too sick for the girls to see up close. In his dual role as mom and dad for the time being, he would paint signs with the girls and they would come to the hospital and call me from below to see if I was capable of getting to the window. Anyone riding by would have witnessed the spectacle of the girls clapping and waving and dancing and singing and having tea parties on the grass all while I was on the phone just so the cancer didn’t take away from our time as a family unit. It was Tim and Bridie and Ali that organized a flash mob, it was Tim, Bridie and Ali that organized a honk for team pam, it was Tim, Bridie, and Ali that pulled all of us through our darkest moments, it was Tim, Bridie and Ali who had to say goodbye to me on numerous occasions as I was given my last rites. It was Tim who had to explain to a 3 year old and a 5 year old that their mommy was dying and wasn’t going to be here anymore and it would only be Bridie, Ali and Daddy which subsequently be known as the BAD tour, they had a following. Anyone that knew us, truly knew us a couple and as a family and not those who were on the outside thinking they knew about us, knew that we were never the couple that would tell each other what to do, we were never the ones to have to ask permission from each other but Tim became that person when he would whisper in my ear as I lay in the hospital bed “you aren’t allowed to die” “take a chance” when I no longer wanted to continue the horrific regimen of chemo and radiation. It was through our cancer journey, and I say “our” because cancer is not a single person issue it was our family issue, it was then that Bridie decided she wanted to be a cancer curing singing doctor. While her daddy was her hero, she also held my oncologist in very high regard, after all he as the one who was able to make the blood come out of my arm and she would sit and cheer him on “do it again, do it again” She formed a very special bond with my doctor, so much so he called her his very own “dennis the menace” and had planned on playdates with her as we had become very close with his family, but sadly never came to fruition. She was a very compassionate little girl, when she was allowed to visit me whether it be in the cancer treatment room or the hospital room, she would put a smile on everyone’s face, she would go around the room singing, her favorite original songs that many here today have seen and heard “ I have to fart” followed by “ I love springtime” and dancing for all that were dying to have some sense of joy. There is a saying that you never wake a sleeping child, well on the rare occasion I was home, it was Doctor Bridie that trained herself to wake up every two hours and help her daddy give me my next dose of medication, it was Bridie that would sanitize the injection point and count “1,2,3, ok mommy here it comes” then she would kiss my thigh as that was her height and run off back to sleep and then redo it again two hours later and every two hours going forward. The ramifications of 2/22/16 are endless, not just because half a family was slaughtered but in the event that my cancer comes back, it will leave my now only daughter parentless. Our family cancer journey was no secret, it was very well documented as we ALL became advocates for cancer research and was publicized locally in articles written about the slaughter of our family. My elderly dad and I don’t have to imagine how incredibly disgusting it was when we had to sit here in court in April of 2017 and listen to the defense ask for the defendant to get a lower bail or let out entirely because his mommy was sick, stating “he’s her only caregiver”, Having no regard that my now only daughters two caretakers were stolen from her, my two caretakers were stolen and a little girl left scared and terrified at the thought if her mommy’s cancer comes back she will be all alone in the world. To this day I remain in post cancer treatment and having tests done more often than usual because of the nature of the cancer, the high rate of its return, and the stress that losing half a family can bring on. I suffer daily from the effects of my treatment and will for the rest of my life not knowing if my cancer will ever return and I will have to leave my daughter parentless.
I mentioned that Bridie a was a very compassionate little girl, it was Bridie that we would joke that we would have to get a separate bank account for fear she would be arrested for a good purposes only, whether it be for standing up to bullies as she had done numerous times even in a foreign country she stood her ground to a bully, throughout her very short life or protesting racial inequality. Yes in her 5 short years of life, she knew what racial inequality was because another hero of Bridies was Martin Luther King Jr. In fact his birthday became a bigger celebration in our house then birthdays or Christmas. We were raising children that were blind to race color creed, which was very evident in a speech that Bridie asked us to videotape about MLK JR. and many in the courtroom has seen since the day it became public. She ended all her speeches with “love is always in your heart” clearly something someone in the courtroom lacked and to this day still does. It was Bridie that almost missed her soccer team picture because her teammate fell and blood was everywhere and she sat by his side rubbing his back and holding her soccer headband on the wound to stop the bleeding until his mom came. Even when the mother of the teammate arrived and she was told she can go get her picture, she sat and tended to him, not leaving his side.
One would think or expect the older sibling to be the one to be the nurturer but in fact it was Bridie that consoled her big sister. Like her big sister, Bridie was born three weeks early, and Bridie and Ali were stuck together at the hip like glue. Bridie skipped over crawling and walking and went straight to running at 8 months old to catch up to her sister. They both had separate rooms but somehow woke up together wrapped in each other’s arms. You see your honor, Tim and I were older parents, we wanted another child for our first daughter in the event that one or both of us got sick, we didn’t want Ali to be an only child, but yet here we are, a then 6 yr old becoming an only child. The silence in our house is absolutely deafening. The silence on our block where we live is deafening, Bridie and Ali were the only two that brought life back to an otherwise quiet and lifeless block, in fact our neighbors started coming out to watch the girls ride their bikes together, play in the dirt, have snowball fights, blow bubbles, just scream and laugh, many thanked us for our girls. They brought joy to so many as only the O’Donnell sisters could, everyone knew them, many even thought they were twins, they finished each other’s sentences, they were best friends again I’ll say it stuck together like glue. Together they joined a baton twirling team, 14 days after the slaughter of half of the O’Donnell duo was the twirling teams first competition, sadly though Bridie never got to compete, the entire team of young girls had to go on without her, she never got to wear her costume, she never got to perform as she had practiced so much and was so proud of herself. The entire performance had to be changed because one person was missing, so this event changed the lives of many little girls. Bridie was slaughtered on her 99th day of pre-k. That day she had learned about the letter P and my last conversation with her is when she called me at lunch time and was so excited because she was on P for Pam, her mom as she said and asked me to print out a picture of myself to use to show what the letter P represented. I printed out that picture but never had the chance to give it to her. In May of 2016, just 2 months later, there was the pre-k graduation she should have been part of, I was invited to attend so that I can receive her posthumous diploma, I went and watched as the school put together a video montage of pictures of Bridie and her classmates, I received that diploma along with a bag full of her stuff from her cubby hole, and the tshirt im wearing the class made of her very last drawing, a rainbow! there were no flowers, or balloons or pictures with the teacher and her classmates, just a bag and a piece of paper.
I can go on and on about the sassy, crazy, funny, loving, precocious little girl that loved yo gabba gabba and peppa pig that was born on Dec 6 at 11:44 pm weighing in at just 5 lbs but we would be here for days. I can tell you how she was a fighter from the very beginning, and how she almost died at birth but pulled through it. Sadly though, she was not a big enough of a fighter at 73lbs and 42 inches to withstand the events of that day in February 2016. She should still be here! He should be here!
My husband Tim and my now only daughter’s daddy was a big man who had an even bigger personality but in a more subtle and quiet way. He was “a man for others” as was the creed to live by at St. Peter’s Prep the Jesuit high school he attended. There is not a person you could find that knew him that could say anything bad about him. He had a Frasier Crane type of humor; he was incredibly smart and witty. He was an avid, NY Giant fan, NY Met fan, Rutgers Basketball and football fan.
He was a teacher and taught for the right reasons, he wanted to make a difference and he did as is evident by the outpouring of support from his students, the hundreds and hundreds that went to see his body lifeless in a box, some being their first time at a viewing, to pay homage and respect to the teacher they adored. His love for his wife and daughters was equal to his students and perhaps even more so for his love of coaching and his team. There is a line in a Kenny Chesney song that was forwarded to me from one of his students after his death that describe Coach in his entirety, “You were teacher, preacher, mother father, a lot less taker than giver, a keeper of secrets and constantly making believers out of quitters” That line alone describes now only daughters hero, my husband my partner in life through good times and bad, to a T. Softball is something that brought us together, him having been a coach and me having been a ball player since the age of 4. It was something that united us and brought us together, in fact it was because of his softball team that we were officially engaged. There was no other way for him to pop the question then to include his team, our girls. Coaching was his life, it was my life, it was our life. When we found out our first child was a girl we immediately went and got her a pink glove. The day I had to have an emergency c-section his team was playing in a tournament, I told him just meet me at the hospital when it’s over, it meant so much to us and his team that he be there to coach, but in true coach fashion he didn’t listen and came to the hospital, without him they went on to lose the game. A few days later when we were bringing our first daughter home from the hospital, instead of going home as any doctor would instruct we went straight to the ballfield, after all that was our home. By the age of 4 Ali had acquired 3 gloves and 2 aluminum bats, all we were waiting for was for her to turn 5 so she can go do pitching lessons. Coach spent numerous hours searching on where to get a face guard for a 4 years olds helmet, and yes in true coach fashion he found one. It wasn’t surprising, she grew up on a softball field she had instant big sisters in the team, and naturally we had both hoped it would become her sport. Then baby number two came, Bridget Mary Riu, and same thing happened. They both grew up on the softball field. He to this day is the only coach in Hudson County to have been named coach of the year by the Hudson reporter twice for two different teams, an honor he truly deserved. As the girls got older he felt it was time to dedicate his coaching to his daughters. In November of 2015 he was involved in revamping the Bayonne Little League softball program. Sadly though, that too never came to fruition as he was cut down 4 months after putting the public notice out about the new softball program. His own girls should have had the opportunity to be coached by him, but again that never happened. Not only did it never happen, my now only daughter wants absolutely nothing to do with the sport that made us a family, NOTHING. Softball wasn’t the only thing that Coach did with love and compassion, and yes I called him coach too even as his wife. Shortly after our cancer journey he was noticing that there was a student who was having some issues with grades and coming in late to school or not at all. He shared with me a story that he found out that this students mom was dying of breast cancer, well he connected with this student on telling him/her about our own journey. Come to find out that this student was an only child and it was only the two of them, the student and dying mother. This concerned him and he asked me about the possibility that if he could go through the proper channels, and if in the event this students mother dies, would it be ok for this student to come live with us…..we agreed It would be a great thing, the student wouldn’t be alone and our girls would have a so called adopted big sibling. To this day I have no idea who this student was because he never told me the name because of privacy issues. I wonder a lot about where they are and who they are with, but because of 2/22/16, I will never know what happened to the student. That was just one of the many examples of the man he was, again I can go on for days on how caring he was, he cared so deeply about everyone he encountered even the people that did not warrant his care.
In the summer of 2015 as a family, we were living our best life, we had two more weddings, after all I survived cancer and we all thought we would be burying me at some point. What better way to celebrate our new lease on life as a family of 4, we went on our first and ultimately last trip out of the country to the hotel that Bridget Mary Riu was named after and they invited us as their guests because of her name. Yes, her middle name was in honor of all of our dearest friends that we met from around the world at a Riu hotel, Tims surprise decision to add it to her birth certificate because that is how he treated his friends he cared for, specifically our friends in England that Coach spent hours the phone with on football Sundays explaining our version of football.
We believed with our new lease on life we would grow old together and watch our girls grow up and thrive and have families of our own. Sadly though that will NEVER happen, to this day my now only daughter has no desire to see the friends she made at Bridgets namesake hotel, the friends we made as a family. Instead her and I had to find a new place to call our designated vacation spot, sadly though now when or if we travel I have to check the calendar because we unfortunately we went to a country not knowing that it was that country’s fathers day, even then my daughter got ridiculed for not having a dad to participate in this locations father’s day activities, that ruined her entire trip. EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED because of 2/22/16.
My husband and I were a team, he depended on me, I depended on him, our girls depended on both of us, we supported each other, that’s how our marriage worked, that team is gone forever. The day they took their last breath was the day our worlds went dark. Their deaths have it literally changed every single thing our world, the way we eat changed, the way we watch tv changed, our friend circle changed, our family dynamic changed, our financial status changed, my job situation changed, their death effects our self-worth, our self-esteem, our confidence. Death of a loved one changes the way you breathe, your mentality, your brain function, there is such a thing as widow brain and If you don’t know what it is count yourself lucky. Your physical body changes, your hobbies and interests change, your sense of security, your sense of humor, your sense of womanhood, EVERY SINGLE thing changes, you are handed a new life that you never asked for and that you don’t want, it’s the hardest most gut wrenching, horrific, life altering of things to live with. The human touch is important especially to a child, and we don’t have that anymore from the people we loved the most.
After the initial shock of such a traumatic loss, grief comes in waves. When you drive in your car, while you are doing the dishes, while you are getting ready for work, a song on the radio, all of a sudden it hits you, it is both mentally and physically painful.
People in this courtroom need to know the severity of what happened, My husband didn’t deserve it, my baby didn’t deserve it, my now only daughter didn’t deserve it, I didn’t deserve, the students didn’t deserve it, the faculty didn’t deserve, the players didn’t deserve, those who loved them abroad didn’t deserve it. We will all live with the “what if’s”. Every single day that I bring my now only daughter to school, I see the kids that were my now dead daughters classmates. My Bridie would be in the 2nd grade now and every time that I have to go to school to help with our PTO I have to walk away when her class comes in. The what if’s of what she would like to do, who her best friend would be, what her grades would be, would she be playing any sports, the what if’s are endless and they mess with our heads on a daily basis. Every blonde haired blued eyed girl reminds me of her, I stop and stare every time, and every time I cry. It’s never ending, the emptiness is never ending.
I’d like to share something another grieving parent, a complete stranger sent to me that was written by a woman named Angela Miller and describes in perfect detail the death of a child:
“The moment our child died is now, yesterday, tomorrow, forever. It is the past, the present, and the future. It was not just one finite horrific moment in time that just happened last whenever. It is not just the moment, the hour. The second, the millisecond our life became permanently divided into before and after. You might say, 'but she died last year!' Or 10 years ago, of five. No, No she didn’t. Our child dies all over again every morning we wake up. And again every moment they are (yet again) missing. And again every moment in between and again every breath we take. Our child dies again every moment they are not here with us for the rest of our lives”
My now only daughter just turned 10, the third birthday without them; it never gets easier for her, NEVER! A little over 3 years later and she has yet to step into her bedroom that she shared with her baby sister. Our house used to be lively, loud and full of joy and happiness and love until 2/22/16. It is now the quiet house, as my now only daughter calls it, again the silence is deafening. There is no joy or laughter, there are no kids giggling, there are no kids being mischievous and having conversations in their own little language, there are no more Sundays rooting for our favorite football team, there are no more sing-alongs with a band called DREAMS with 2 very special little girls one as the lead singer/guitar player and one the drummer, they named their band DREAMS because they had big ones together that will never be now. The sounds you hear nightly are crying when my daughter wants her dad to recite his bedtime story he wrote just for his two girls, or when it is raining and there are no kids outside to play with and there are no kids inside to play with because most kids are addicted to their technology, instead, you hear a grieving mom and widow explaining to her daughter that the crash was not her fault, she believes she was the cause of it, my husband and daughter were on their way home to take Ali to the doctor, she now believes if she hadn’t had to go to the doctor then they would not have gotten killed. The idea she believes is her fault is horrific and something she will need to work on the rest of her life, she has been sentenced to a life of counseling and therapy.
A little over 3 years later and there are still unopened Christmas gifts from santa that Bridie never got to play with, a little over 3 years later and my daughter still cries herself to sleep, a little over 3 years later and she still asks me why this happened. In fact the day of the crash when I had to explain to her that there was a terrible crash and that daddy and bridie won’t be coming home, she asked me “well why didn’t you try the true loves kiss like in the Disney princess movies?” my reply was “I tried it didn’t work”. At that exact moment is when her childhood ended, not only did the events of 2.22.16 kill half our family it killed any childhood wonderment she that my then 6 year old had. She had to grow up really quick; half her family was dead and my cancer may come back and kill me too.
There is no amount of therapy that can bring back what she needs most, there is no amount of therapy that can bring back the childhood that she had and deserved. It was killed along with her dad and sister. To this day neither of us can watch the movie Frozen, which was instrumental in our cancer journey; the girls would climb into my hospital bed and watch it over and over and over again, no doubt we must have seen it over a thousand times. We both cry every time we hear the song “let it go” or “do you wanna build a snow man”! My now only daughter’s life too has been stolen from her:
There are no daddy and daughter dances, there are no take your kid to work day, there will be no daddy to walk her down the aisle, she will never be an aunt, she will never have a dad’s shoulder to cry when a boy breaks her heart, there is no math or science teacher to help her with homework, there is no dad to answer the door with that stern look on his face when she goes on her first date, there will be no daddy daughter dance at her wedding! 2.22.16 KILLED ALL OF HER DREAMS AND THEN SOME. Every birthday, every holiday, every single day has been ruined because of the tremendous loss that we were dealt on that fateful day. Instead of going to fun summer camps or holiday break camps my now only daughter goes to GRIEF CAMP. Even in grief camp to learn how to cope with her loss she still feels alone, as we are yet to find another child who lost not one but two family members in one instant so she never feels like she fits in, EVER, ANY WHERE! She is incredibly alone in so many aspects of her life.
It is thru grief camp that I was given some horrific statistics via the center for health of human services, when a child experiences the loss of a caretaker that child is 5x more likely to commit suicide, 9x more likely to be high school dropout, 10x more likely to engage in substance abuse, 20x more likely to develop behavioral issues. These statistics are for one loss, so you tell me do we double them for 2 losses as one time? Is it now 10x more likely to commit suicide, 18x more likely to be a high school dropout, 20x more likely to engage in substance abuse, 40x more likely to develop behavioral issues? This is what my future holds with my daughter, as a parent we try every day to mold our children into good decent members of society, as a parent you know how hard that is, well my job just got tougher, I have to make sure she doesn’t become the heartless selfish drug abuser that the person who started a series of events that killed half our family is. One of the hardest things as a parent is to watch your child go through something so devastating and there isn’t a thing you can do to fix it. No amount of counseling or therapy can bring back what wants most.
Three days after 2/22/16 I took my daughter for ice cream, in that ice cream shop a little boy looked at her and said, “I saw your picture on the cover of the newspaper, you must have been a really bad girl for god to punish you like that”. My daughter to this day thinks she was a bad girl and wonders why she’s been punished so harshly.
If the words that I say today don’t resonate with you or the words you read in the many letters that were given to you, I ask that you try to understand that the only similarity that comes to mind is that of all of us being in a minefield when an IED goes off, Each of us forever damaged in different ways. Depending on how close you were to the explosion, determines the loss and the pain. We all have our own journeys we must now travel without Tim and Bridie, to put the true magnitude of our loss into words is impossible. To this day my now only daughter and I live life minute to minute.
My daughter and I were given a life sentence without our family, those who loved our family were given a life sentence, those students that filed into a funeral home for the first time were given a life sentence, my daughter’s classmates were given a life sentence, the fusion twirling team was given a life sentence. The maximum sentence to me is far too lenient. However, I am pleading with you and begging you and laying it all at your feet your honor, that you do give the maximum sentence allowed by law without parole. Give my now only daughter something to believe in since she believes in nothing at this point, give my now only daughter a sense of relief that he won’t see the light of day, that he won’t be able to procreate and see his own child, give my daughter a sense that there is justice in the world, YES he was found guilty but the real justice comes in the form of sentencing, a guilty verdict will mean absolutely nothing if he is out of jail and able to live a life outside the walls of a prison cell. Give our family who has been through so much something to believe in and that belief would only come in the form of a maximum sentence without parole. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak for myself and my now only daughter and for your consideration to all of our voices as we proceed here today.