Archive for Monday, July 16, 2012

A lesson in forgiveness: Young man struggles to rebuild his life after killing bicyclist while driving drunk

It has been almost three years since Lawrence resident Joel Hernandez, while driving drunk, struck and killed Rachel Leek, 20, as she was riding her bicycle near 10th and Tennessee streets on Oct. 16, 2009. Hernandez, who is preparing for his senior year at Haskell Indian Nations University, says he is comforted by knowing he has been forgiven by some members of the Leek family.

It has been almost three years since Lawrence resident Joel Hernandez, while driving drunk, struck and killed Rachel Leek, 20, as she was riding her bicycle near 10th and Tennessee streets on Oct. 16, 2009. Hernandez, who is preparing for his senior year at Haskell Indian Nations University, says he is comforted by knowing he has been forgiven by some members of the Leek family.

July 16, 2012


For a grieving father whose daughter died too soon and for the man responsible for her death, it was a private moment of grace.

Rachel Leek

Rachel Leek

Joel C. Hernandez, then 22, waited in a small room at the Douglas County Courthouse on May 20, 2010. Minutes earlier, Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone sentenced Hernandez, a student at Haskell Indian Nations University, to six months in jail after Hernandez admitted driving drunk and killing bicyclist Rachel Leek, 20.

“You’re going to live with her death for the rest of your life,” Malone told Hernandez.

It was an emotional scene during sentencing. Hernandez gave a tearful apology for hitting Leek’s bicycle early on Oct. 16, 2009.

Deputies led Hernandez to the room where he’d wait to be escorted to jail.

But Leek’s father, who read a brief statement during sentencing, asked to speak with Hernandez. The two men had never spoken.

Hernandez was nervous and not sure what to expect: maybe an angry and well-deserved confrontation.

Instead, Jim Leek gave Hernandez a card from his daughter’s funeral that included her picture. Leek said a few words to Hernandez, then gave the young man a hug.

And with that, forgiveness.

‘I think I hit something’

Hernandez, now 24, emerges from an SUV and hobbles out on crutches.

Sprained knee, he says, from a slip.

He’ll have to call his mom to be picked back up, he explains. He doesn’t drive anymore.

In his only media interview, Hernandez spoke at length about the accident that killed Rachel Leek, a former Kansas University student who worked at WheatFields Bakery.

Hernandez admits to driving drunk after an evening at a downtown Lawrence bar on Oct. 16, 2009. The two women he was with were much drunker, Hernandez said, so he drove the women home in one of their cars.

Leek, meanwhile, was riding her bicycle down the 1000 block of Tennessee Street around 2:15 a.m., on her way to visit her boyfriend, Sam Goodell, who was one of the first people on scene after hearing ambulance sirens.

Hernandez said he never saw Leek, as he looked to the side before changing lanes on Tennessee Street. When he looked back, there was a hand-sized crack in the windshield.

“I’ve gone over it in my head so many times,” Hernandez said. “There was no sound.”

As they continued, Hernandez said, “I think I hit something.”

The passengers said they didn’t see or hear anything, according to Hernandez.

They didn’t look or turn back either.

It took police several weeks before they announced a suspect in the fatal hit-and-run case, and several more before they named Hernandez.

Hernandez said that led some people to think he was hiding out or on the run.

But police knew the identity of the driver and brought Hernandez in for questioning the morning after the accident, Hernandez said.

After seeing news of the accident, one of the women in the car the night before called Hernandez and told him she thought they hit Leek. Hernandez agreed to go to the police, but as he pulled out of his dorm parking lot at Haskell, he was quickly surrounded by unmarked police cars and taken in for questioning.

Hernandez asked for a lawyer after waiting at the police station most of the day. An officer drove him back to his mother’s house.

Hernandez had not seen the news coverage and didn’t know Leek died later that day at a Topeka hospital. He found out from the officer who dropped him off.

“He said, ‘She’s dead. You killed her,’” Hernandez said.

In the intervening months, Hernandez’s attorney, Al Lopes, worked with prosecutors on a plea agreement. Because there was no way to prove whether Hernandez was over the legal drinking limit, prosecutors didn’t opt for a more serious manslaughter charge. The two sides settled on a driving under the influence charge, and Malone imposed the maximum jail sentence for a first-time offense.

‘They’ll look right through you’

Hernandez, a Lawrence High School graduate who has lived in Lawrence since he was 4, will frequently run into old friends or acquaintances at the grocery store or somewhere else around Lawrence. With time, he’s learned not to be the first to greet people. Often, he’s just ignored.

“They’ll look right through you,” he said.

When he applies for jobs, he never gets calls back.

“All they care about is that I was an Indian driving drunk,” he said. “And that I left her there to die.”

He knows his version of the story, that he didn’t know he hit Leek, is difficult for people to accept.

“I’m already set on the fact that people won’t believe me,” he said.

After getting out of jail, Hernandez re-enrolled at Haskell and was elected Student Senate president. He’ll enter his senior year in the fall, finishing up a business administration degree. After graduation, he talks about getting his MBA, possibly at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., near where his brother lives.

He credits the friends and family who stood by him with getting his life back on track.

“I could be at home, just hating myself for what I’ve done,” he said.

Instead, he’s tried to move forward, distancing himself from the partying and careless living that was part of his life a few years ago.

“I surround myself with people who want to do something with their lives,” he said.

Rachel’s Gardens

At his Overland Park home recently, Jim Leek, a retired Latin American literature teacher for the Shawnee Mission School District, talks about turning 62 years old.

As it has been for the past three years, his birthday will be a tough day for his family.

It’s Oct. 16. The same day Rachel died.

Leek hasn’t spoken to Hernandez since their meeting at the May 2010 sentencing.

Does he believe Hernandez’s version of events?

“Who knows?” Leek said.

But how the accident happened isn’t really relevant to him at this point, and it never played into his decision to forgive Hernandez, he said.

“I try to listen to my heart,” he said. “We understood it was an accident.”

Leek hadn’t heard anything about Hernandez’s life following his release from jail. He said he’s glad to hear Hernandez is moving forward and taking positive steps.

“Rachel was not a grudge-holding person,” he said. “Rachel would’ve wanted him to go on.”

For two years, the family has been running an organic gardening business, Rachel’s Gardens, in honor of Rachel, who was one of 11 Leek children. Leek motions to the backyard, where the top of a greenhouse used for the business is visible through the trees.

“As human beings, we don’t often learn the easy way,” Leek said.

Leek doesn’t remember exactly what he said to Hernandez in that courthouse meeting. He remembers the card and the hug.

But that moment of forgiveness is crystal clear for Hernandez.

“That’s all I needed,” Hernandez said. “I know that the family doesn’t hate me. That’s one of the things that gets me through it.”


Kenny Nall 5 years, 11 months ago

Knowing the people involved personally. It's good to know that the persons involved have taken things with such grace. It truly is rewarding when you see both sides make such positive progress after such a horrible accident. My wishes go out to Hernandez, the Leeks and Goodell.

rightsaidfred 5 years, 11 months ago

He is lying, he parties all the time! The only reason he did this interview was because he knew all the students who see him go out wouldn't see it.

MarcoPogo 5 years, 11 months ago

Yay! Two completely new posters already spewing vitriol like the "pros" around here. Welcome to Fantasy Island!

rightsaidfred 5 years, 11 months ago

It be nice if he was honest, I would be more inclined to believe his intentions of doing this interview in the middle of summer

MarcoPogo 5 years, 11 months ago

Hmmm, wonder what happened to redbull326's comment? Just simply vanished...yeah, right.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 11 months ago

Forgiveness is so very difficult, the urge to strike out is strong. My hope is that Hernandez has forgiven himself. It is wrong for others to hate him and refuse him their friendship and support. He deserves love just as much as anyone else. It was horrifying that he was driving so drunk that he did not realize he had hit someone, and it will be equally terrible if he loses his life though unrelenting guilt and the failure of others to accept him and help him move forward.
What about the two women in the back seat who were even drunker than he was? Has this made them change their lives, knowing what can happen when you get drunk? Jim Leek is a good man who has done what many of us could not or would not do. Thank you Mr. Leek for your compassion. Mr. Hernandez, I hope you can put this behind you. Dean Koontz wrote in one of his Odd Thomas books that one of the characters had thoughts whirling though his mind as though his brain was a television and someone else had the remote. The toughest part will be taking the remote back.

Amy Heeter 5 years, 11 months ago

Oh please. No twist will change this. Joel knew he hit her and fled. 6 months is not hard time. Play the pity card all you want. No matter to anyone. The leek family are decent people. Them forgiving is healthy, but Joel's denial & excuses are not. Joel take a good hard look at your drinking habits. They go way back. Oh & please don't play the native card it makes you look ignorant. Own it for once in your life.

workinghard 5 years, 11 months ago

LOL, I remembered something you said a while back "It's a darn shame some people prefer to look only at the past and zero in on the negatives. Instead if we look at progress and the present while seeing the magic of hope and perseverance." I guess it only applies when you like the particular person being discussed.

John Hamm 5 years, 11 months ago

Rachel doesn't have a life to rebuild. And as for this comment, "“All they care about is that I was an Indian driving drunk,” he said. “And that I left her there to die.”" Wrong! All I care about is that you were driving drunk and left her there to die!

somedude20 5 years, 11 months ago

"Hernandez, now 24, emerges from an SUV and hobbles out on crutches. Sprained knee, he says, from a slip."

Why is this part of the story? To get the reader to feel bad for him? Nice fluff piece

"Hernandez admits to driving drunk after an evening at a downtown Lawrence bar on Oct. 16, 2009. The two women he was with were much drunker, Hernandez said, so he drove the women home in one of their cars"

Good job Joel, you are very chivalrous. Guess all the cabs in town were off the clock and no one would pick you guys up (Mother/Father of yours or girls/friends) walk. My hero!

"Hernandez agreed to go to the police, but ......."

Yep, you are a beacon of truth and I am sure that is what you were going to do.

I do not feel sorry for you. You are disingenous at best or a killer at worst and are not worthy of any sympathy

Jennifer Alexander 5 years, 11 months ago

Wow, have you ever gotten in an accident? Hurt someone by accident? I guess we should have no sympathy for you either. I am not defending what he did, but the flip side is that the family has forgiven. People who hold grudge probably lead a sad and lonely life. You have to forgive and try your best to move on. What happened was an accident. Granted he should not have been drinking and driving, but he did. I suppose you have never made the mistake of getting behind the wheel after having one too many?

somedude20 5 years, 11 months ago

Wow, you would call a person who knowingly got behind the wheel of a car to drive DRUNK. This was NOT an accident because he knew he was drunk and drove. I can't believe people refer this as an accident. He knew he was drunk, drove and took his chances, not an accident. I shall refrain attacking you back!

"a : an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance b : lack of intention or necessity : chance 2a : an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance "

Jennifer Alexander 5 years, 11 months ago

So you are saying that he hit her on purpose? I would say no, regardless of whether or not he had been drinking. Therefore, it is an accident. Alcohol or not.

RDE87 5 years, 11 months ago

Just a little FYI, the average person drives drunk 80 times before they are caught. And I am pretty sure that's a low number. I do not condone driving drunk at all but in Lawrence it is VERY hard to get a taxi late at night (45-hour wait) and SafeRide is wonderful (10 min wait) but is only available to current KU students. Unless you have a friend who is sober and is willing to pick you up or you walk home, you're options are limited.

workinghard 5 years, 11 months ago

Not taking sides but would like to point out I am about as average as they come, and I have NEVER driven drunk. There is no excuse. If you choose to do so, be man/woman enough to own up to it and the consequences. Make arrangements ahead of time or don't drink.

friendlyjhawk 5 years, 11 months ago

So a drunk might have a 45 (hour!)minute wait? Better a wait then the accident. And is VERY hard to get a taxi late at night? These are not excuses for causing the death of another or yourself. But drunk or buzzed or whatever you decide to call your condition when you are drinking there is no way you are can make good decisions about driving.

somedude20 5 years, 11 months ago

You might have a case if Joel was not drunk. It is not like he was the first person to find out the effects of alcohol (like a caveman finding that "fire hot"). He was 22, bet it wasn't the first time he got drunk. The effects of drink are common knowledge and he KILLED, sorry, you must not get it because of what you said so listen....he KKKIIILLLEEEDDD another human because he WANTED to drive drunk!! That IS not an accident.

jaywalker 5 years, 11 months ago

Get a grip, dude. No matter your juvenile deductions, it certainly sounds like an accident that may have not been avoidable regardless. The man was sentenced to the max under the law, and he's going to be haunted by the incident for the rest of his life.

Peace to the family, peace on his soul. That's a tremendous burden for everyone to carry.

somedude20 5 years, 11 months ago

Do you agree that drunk driving is a crime? I'll answer for is. So, using your logic, a person breaks in a house to steal and has a gun. He doesn't believe anyone is home but when the home owner startled the robber, the robber shoots and kills them...accident or not? I am sure that ole Joel didn't get in the car (while drunk) and think, "hey, I'm going to kill a person" but fact is he did. People often talking about DD as playing with a loaded gun ..."it was just an accident, your honor, I didn't mean to kill anyone." Grow up, son and stop being so naive!!!

jaywalker 5 years, 11 months ago

"Do you agree that drunk driving is a crime? I'll answer for is."

Why bother typing that?

"So, using your logic, ...."

What ensues after the above gem (I love posters who try to argue by telling another what they're thinking) is pointless. Your analogy is ridiculous. Choosing to shoot someone is never an accident.

Try again.

jaywalker 5 years, 11 months ago

He got the max the law allowed. And he's trying to make himself a better person and cope with the aftermath of a tragic mistake. What do you think he should be doing? for forgiveness!

ironhead80 5 years, 11 months ago

This year is 2012, Hernandez if you feel other people see you as just an Indian driving drunk, That's your problem. Your parents didn't teach you about how to respect yourself enough too not drink around and you didn't learn on what it means to be blessed to be Native American. You had and have an obligation to the your culture to be a non drinker, but, instead you chose the non Indian culture way. Now, this loving young woman is gone! I have no empathy for you and you didn't receive what you really needed as in a longer sentence.

Charlie Sabotage 5 years, 11 months ago

Whatever anyone wants to say, this man says he was going to turn himself in. Either way the police were on to him. He got jail time (not much) and he now get s to live with the harsh reality that everyone is going to treat him horribly. What happened was horrible and yes a life was taken. I think that him being shunned and looked down upon in society is harder than any jail time. So on a different note, I wish that the person that hit my friend and drove away would get caught. Luckily she survived but has to endure living with multiple surgeries and pain, she is coping well, years after.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 11 months ago

We have no information as to what kind of parents he has. It is a fact that right now, today, people of color get treated differently in a lot of places. No, bigotry has not gone away. The accident cannot be undone.
I would hope that those who walk and ride bikes will take care and not assume that the driver is aware that they are there. My daughter was driving me home from a movie one night and I realized then how difficult it is to see walkers and bikers. They can be all but invisible.

Tomato 5 years, 11 months ago

It is very difficult. All cyclists should get one of those little flashing lights. They cost as little as 5 bucks.

I came up on a cyclist the other night and I felt I got very close to him by the time my headlights caught the reflectors on his pedals. I passed safely, but as I looked in the rear view at all of the traffic behind me, I could do nothing but thank god that my husband (who also cycles at night sometimes) has one of those lights.

Topple 5 years, 11 months ago

Where do we draw the line? Should we arrest McDonalds restaurant managers for serving food to overweight people that come for the daily supply of make-me-fatter when they have a heart attack?

You're trying to reassign blame to people who deserve none. The legal drinking age is set to 21...old enough to make educated decisions for oneself. At some point, he was sober and decided to drink. He's a big boy, and he knew the risks he was taking every step of the way. It's not a bartenders job to keep tabs on everyone's mental acuity.

Should we continue to blame the tobacco industry for people getting smoking-related lung cancer? Because I don't know a single smoker who doesn't know that smoking causes lung cancer. They just don't care. Not until they are directly affected by it, then they start endorsing anti-smoking campaigns.

Drunk driving is no different. People think they're invincible, that it won't happen to them. He chose to get drunk seemingly without an apparant plan to get home...probably figured he'd just wing it, like he probably had on many previous occasions, and would likely still be doing if this hadn't happened.

People learn from their mistakes when they suffer from their consequences.

Carol Bowen 5 years, 11 months ago

Lawrence is full of drunks, driving, walking, falling of of rooftops, dying in bed. The sirens run all night during the weekends and quite a bit during the week. Joel is a symptom of a much bigger problem. There have been efforts to curb student drinking, but what about non-students? I think that education and drug free zones are lame. There need to be swift and serious consequences before drinking gets out of hand.

pizzapete 5 years, 11 months ago

Although I do believe the legal limit should be raised, driving while drunk should be a very serious crime with very serious consequences. Add vehicular homicide to the equation and I would hope the guilty party would be in prison a minimum of five years. This guy only served six months? Six months just doesn't seem to me to match the gravity of this crime. He would probably get more time for stealing a car.

booyalab 5 years, 11 months ago

The tone of this article is ridiculous. We are supposed to feel sorry for a guy who got away with a simple DUI charge after killing someone?

JackMcKee 5 years, 11 months ago

Bring on the hate, but it's probably not a good idea to ride a bike with no lights down Tennessee street at 2AM.

Topple 5 years, 11 months ago

I have a headlight and tail light if I think I'll be riding anytime near darkness.

Chances are slim that he would have seen a little tail light, though, if he hit a person and killed them without even hearing it.

Carol Bowen 5 years, 11 months ago

Joel is a real person, folks. Of course this will hang over his head for the rest of his life. Venemous comments do not help. What can we do to prevent more sad stories in the future?

purplesage 5 years, 11 months ago

"The accident may have been unavoidable, regardless . . ." They were drinking alcohol and got into an automobile. They hit "something" - maybe, but it seems as if ther perceptions of reality might have been impaired. Unavoidable. Hardly.

jaywalker 5 years, 11 months ago

Nobody saw her, not before the accident, not even when she struck the windshield. A bike w/ no lights at 2am on Tennessee? Sorry, but a sober driver might have met the same fate.

jaywalker 5 years, 11 months ago

From the reporting here, he was going home. And as far as I know, this is the first piece on him, so your "continuing to give him a place to publicly blah blah blah" is pointless.
Also not sure what "denials" you're referring to, but I reckon his family is loving and supporting him as any other would. And he's responded by continuing his education, being elected Student Senate President, and looking to gain his MBA.

Sorry, the man made a mistake, he's paid for it through the justice system, he'll pay for it every day the rest of his life. And he's not sitting around feeling sorry for himself, but striving to make himself a learned and better man. Not sure what else everybody wants here.

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