Metro-East News

August 13, 2014

Hearing gets heated as former trooper Mitchell returns to court

Former Illinois State Police trooper Matt Mitchell left his latest hearing in attempt to get his driving privileges restored shaken and less certain about the case's outcome than ever.

The hearing was more contentious and lengthy than previous hearings. Mitchell's attorney, J. Israel Slone, said he was surprised by the tone and the length of the hearing.

"Oh, no, not at all," Slone said when asked if he thought the change in format was a sign that the secretary of state's office was giving Mitchell's request more careful consideration. "Did you see that in there? I've been in about 5,000 of these (reinstatement hearings) and I have never seen one like this."

Meanwhile, Kimberly Schlau, mother of two girls killed in Mitchell's 2007 crash during which he lost control of his police cruiser while going 126 miles an hour, causing him to cross the center median, vault up the opposite embankment and crash into oncoming traffic, was unmoved by Mitchell's testimony.

"I think he's sorry about the end result," Schlau said. "But I don't know that he takes responsibility for causing what happened."

She said she was disappointed that the former state trooper was going to make a statement today turned out to be a brief address to the television media before the hearing took place, not a statement directed at the victims' family.

"I didn't hear it so I don't know what he said," Schlau said. "I thought he was going to say something during the hearing."

Unlike past hearings when the victims' relatives were allowed to make a statement about why the former trooper should be denied driving privileges, and Mitchell was allowed to say why he should be able to return to the road, the secretary of state's office sent an attorney to grill Mitchell this time about topics including eight traffic crashes he had during his 13 years as a licensed driver, including three while driving a State Police car and about his alcohol use.

Mitchell seemed aggravated by the questions, including ones about what he learned about safe driving at the Illinois State Police academy both in his initial training and a refresher course ordered by his sergeant after his second crash while on duty.

The Secretary of State's office attorney bristled at Mitchell's claims that he couldn't remember the name of a person he injured in one crash who received a $1.7 million settlement from the state due to the crash, or that he wasn't being unsafe when he wrecked a police car going 70 mph on an icy road where the posted speed limit was 65.

Mitchell also chuckled incredulously several times when grilled about his drinking history and apparent discrepancies between a written report given to an alcohol counselor and his verbal testimony.

At one point Mitchell snapped at the attorney, Ken Johnson, saying "I don't know what you want from me."

Slone objected to several of the questions unsuccessfully and then asked that the hearing he expected to last less than an hour be postponed until Thursday because it ran so long that it made him unable to meet another unrelated court date in Belleville.

The hearing officer refused the delay telling Slone, "Not my circus, not my monkeys."

Instead the hearing went on until about 3 p.m., five hours after its start.

The most gut-wrenching part of the hearing came when Mitchell was forced, in excruciating detail, to recount the fateful crash in November 2007 on Interstate 64 east of O'Fallon in which Schlau's daughters, Kelli and Jessica Uhl, were killed.

Mitchell testified he learned after the accident that investigtion determined he was going 126 mph at the time of the crash, although he claimed he didn't realize he was going that fast. He added that it wasn't the fastest he'd gone in a police cruiser. During a previous occasion, he went 130-140 mph, Mitchell estimated, trying to chase down an alleged drunk driver. The motorist, whom he eventually caught up with, wasn't cited for driving under the influence, just for speeding, Mitchell recalled, and possibly improper lane usage.

Mitchell admitted allegations that he was typing on an in-dash computer before the crash and talking to his girlfriend about a Christmas present. But he claimed that both distracting events concluded well before the crash.

Mitchell dabbed tears with his thumbs then wiped them away with the back of his hand as they flowed more freely while the recount went on. Eventually a member of the Uhl girls' family handed him a package of tissues to wipe his eyes.

Dazed after the crash, Mitchell said the first thing he remembered was a citizen coming up to his car to ask him if he was okay. He said he was and asked to be handed his radio so he could call for help. He said he was disoriented and had to ask where he was. It was then he heard someone say in reference to the Uhl's car "They're dead. They're both dead."

"I don't want to be the cause of this for anybody else," Mitchell said. "I don't want anybody to go through this."

But when asked if he pleaded guilty to charges of reckless homicide in relation to the case because he believed he was guilty, Mitchell said he pleaded guilty because, on the advice of a criminal attorney, he didn't believe he could get a fair trial.

Later he admitted that his speed was the primary cause of the crash. He said he believed in the past that he wasn't guilty because he was angry and upset about losing his job and had a tough time coming to terms with the fact that he was responsible for the death of two people.

Johnson seemed most intent on damaging Mitchell's credibility and it seemed he largely succeeded in the eyes of hearing officer James Arvey, of Chicago.

Arvey said he hadn't made a decision on the appeal but admitted he was unconvinced that Mitchell had made a sincere effort to convince the community that he was a changed man who deserves a second chance.

Mitchell admitted to Arvey that he never reached out to the Uhl family in the aftermath of the crash although their father sent him a get well card while he was in Barnes Hospital recovering from injuries suffered in the crash.

This is the fifth time Mitchell has appeared at an appeal hearing in an attempt to get his license back.

According to Slone, the Secretary of State's hearing officer has recommended after previous hearings that Mitchell's license be reinstated only to have a high-ranking state official over-rule the officer. Secretary of State's Office spokesman Dave Druker in May confirmed Slone's version of events to the News-Democrat, and said it was Secretary of State Jesse White who rejected the plan to restore Mitchell's driving privileges.

Schlau has said she has continues to argue against Mitchell because she believes he has never truly taken responsibility for the death of her daughters.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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