Kim Schlau couldn’t believe it when she got the text from one of her daughter’s friends, telling her two sisters were killed in a traffic crash.
“I just want to tell the parents, I know how they feel, but I don’t know how they feel. I know how I felt,” Schlau said.
Schlau is the mother of Kelli and Jessica Uhl, who were killed after a squad car driven by an Illinois state trooper Matt Mitchell who was going 126 mph while sending emails and talking on his cell phone smashed into the Mazda driven by Jessica, 18.
She recalled her loss when she heard about the traffic crash that killed two sisters on Tuesday night on Interstate 55 near Hamel.
Hailey J. Bertels, 20, and her 17-year-old sister Madisen N. Bertels from Staunton died at the scene of the accident Tuesday night, according to Illinois State Trooper Calvin Dye Jr.
Hailey was in the backseat while Madisen was driving the 2010 Kia Forte four-door sedan, according to a release from Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn.
The pair of sisters were about the same age, Schlau said. Both sets of sisters died around Thanksgiving in a traffic crash.
Jessica and Kelli Uhl were driving Nov. 23, 2007, on Interstate 64 east of O’Fallon when the former trooper’s police cruiser crossed the center median and hit them at 126 mph. Kelli and Jessica Uhl were driving to their Collinsville home after a family photo session at their father Brian Uhl’s home in Mascoutah when Mitchell, who was talking on his cell phone, reading and sending email on his computer, crashed into them.
It was the day after Thanksgiving and traffic was heavy.
Thursday will be the 10th anniversary of the Uhl sisters’ death.
“This has been a tough one for me,” Schlau said.
The second year of holidays was harder than the first, she said. The first year, Schlau said lots of people offered support. There were funeral details to decide. Paperwork to do. Investigations results pending.
Mitchell pleaded guilty to reckless homicide last year, then resigned from the Illinois State Police. He was sentenced to probation.
By the second year, Schlau said there was more time to think, reflect on the loss, grieve.
People want to be there for you, but this kind of thing, no one wants to think it could happen to them. It’s a club that no one wants to be a part of.
Kim Schlau, mother of Kelli and Jessica Uhl who were killed in a Thanksgiving crash in 2017
During that time, Schlau said she got a phone call from a mother who had a child die in a similar manner. It helped, she said.
“I didn’t feel so alone. This experience was so isolating. People want to be there for you, but this kind of thing, no one wants to think it could happen to them. It’s a club that no one wants to be a part of.”
Schlau offered to be there for the Bertel’s sisters’ parents, “when they are ready.”
“You have to learn to live a new normal. There’s no right or wrong way,” she said.
It’s a crushing grief, Schlau said, parents who lose children go through.
“You have to get help. You just can’t go through this alone,” she said.
And she found a new purpose. Schlau travels around the country speaking to police officer trainees about what happened to her daughters in a program called “Below 100.”
“Some people who go through this are very angry with the police. I’m not angry with him. (Matt Mitchell) killed my daughters, not police,” she said.
In 10 years there have been changes in the Schlau’s family, she’s remarried to Craig Schlau and her youngest daughter, Maddy, started college in Oregon.
“I’m really glad she did that. For her to do that after all the separation anxiety after the crash, I am so proud of her for taking that leap,” Schlau said.
On Thanksgiving, Kim and Craig Schlau are headed to Oregon. They haven’t seen Maddy in two months, the longest they have ever been apart.
“I’m going to just hug her,” she said.
For the drivers on the road during Thanksgiving holidays, Schlau just wants to offer this advice: “Put your phones down. Watch your speed. Please be careful. You never know what you could lose.”