Wreck brings back bad memories
When 29-year-old Thomas Bell was in a recent wreck, he told the officer at the scene, he had called his mother, Kathy Bell-Schnexnaider, and “she is MADD.” What the officer later found out, was Schexnaider is the local advocate for 12 counties, including Orange County, for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and the statement her son made had double meaning.
“Mom, I’ve been in a wreck,” he told his mother over the phone.
For both of them, this statement was filled with emotion since Bell’s father, Lawrence, was killed by a drunk driver in 1991. The driver of the vehicle involved in wreck with Bell is suspected of driving drunk too. Formal charges are pending with the results of a blood test. Schnexnaider quickly got dressed and headed to the wreck site.
“The only saving grace was that it was Thomas calling me instead of a trooper,” Schexnaider said.
She added, it would be one of her biggest nightmares to be like the mothers of her victims who had that knock at the door or a phone call from law enforcement to tell them of their loved ones being killed on the highways.
Bell and his girlfriend were coming back from Moody Gardens and were traveling on Highway 73 and County Line Road in Winnie in a four-door Mercury sedan. As they traveled down the roadway, Bell said he saw a pickup to his left and took it for granted it would stop at the two stop signs before entering the highway.
Suddenly he heard his girlfriend say his name and in a split second he realized what was about to occur and veered left to avoid a direct hit to the driver’s side door. Instead, the pickup struck the left front quarter panel which caused the vehicle to “fish-tail.” The pickup then went into a nearby ditch.
A “good samaritan” stopped to check on them. Suddenly the driver of the pickup involved in the wreck quickly left the scene. The “good samaritan” followed them. Within a few minutes a second person had stopped to help, but then joined in on following the suspect. As pickup traveled along Highway 73, it passed a Department of Public safety Trroper who has just received the information about the pickup leaving the scene. He initiated a traffic stop and the driver along with his passenger were later arrested. The driver, Jose Saluade, 47, of Winnie, was charged with driving while intoxicated, felony failure to stop and render aide and an open container violation. Saluade also did not have a driver’s license or insurance. He later posted a $4,000 bond and was released from jail.
Schexnaider vows to be at the suspect’s every court appearance and to see justice served on the man who nearly took her son’s life. This time, her son and his girlfriend would be OK and were released from the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
Schexnaider says at one time she cringed every time her son left the house since she knew too well how things can change in a instant. However, over the years, she had relaxed a bit and would tell herself, “that’s not going to happen to me again.”
Schexnaider became involved with MADD in 1991 when she decided she wasn’t going to just be another victim of a drunk driver and called them the day after her husband was killed.
Lawrence Bell was weed-eating in the front yard of his mother’s house in Fred, with his two children, Thomas, 7, and his 3-year-old brother who were playing nearby. A 62-year-old man, who was known as the “town drunk,” veered off the roadway. He threw Lawrence Bell about 100 feet and slammed his body into a tree. The man later received 6 months in the county jail, 10 years probation and a $1,500 fine for the incident, Schexnaider said.
Upset and frustrated, she called county officials to find out how to keep the man in jail longer, and quickly found out she didn’t have any rights — even in court.
“I was told that I couldn’t speak in court and even if I cried I would be thrown out of court,” Schnexnaider said.
Silently she sat in the courtroom and wore sunglasses to hide her tears. Her hopes of addressing the man who has killed her husband were tossed aside by officials.
It was then she decided to stand up for victims’ rights and do something so people who had their lives shattered by drunk drivers would not have to endure the pain she went through. Schexnaider began by volunteering for MADD for nine years before becoming a full-time employee as a senior victim advocate. Nearly 22 years later, she is still just as passionate about her job.
She helps the living victims of drunk drivers in getting help with funeral expenses, medical bills and provides emotional support too. Schexnaider is often seen wearing the MADD colors of red as she attends court.
“I am not going to let somebody run over the victims. They need to have a say,” she said. “Offenders have court rights. If we as victims don’t get rights, nothing happens.”
In addition to assisting the many families, she does not lose sight of the first victim which is the deceased. She places and maintains small white crosses along the highways at the location where the person was killed, if the family does not do it first.
Once in a while, she gets frustrated with the system and for a second or two she said she considers quitting. After she receives a call from a victim’s family or a victim she is recharged and ready to help.
Bell has had to deal with his memories as well. He is more than ever strongly against drinking and driving and the constant use of seat belts.
MADD is about moms, dads, daughters, sons and uncles working together to stop drunk driving, supporting the victims of the violent crime and preventing underage drinking, Schexnaider said.
“It is the most preventable death or crime on earth,” she said. “All it takes is not getting behind the wheel.”
Pictured above: Kathy Bell-Schexnaider, advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, holds a cross made to honor her husband who was killed by a drunk driver in 1991.