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.”


purplesage 1 year, 9 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.


smitty 1 year, 9 months ago

The Nootkas (matriarchal)of BC gather in a circle. Anyone can bring their troubles to the circle to share. Those in the circle will share their experiences and wisdom they have with the same troubles. Should the same problems be shared again in the circle without having attempted to change anything, the circle gets up and moves , leaving the complainer sitting alone to figure it out.

What's the culture of Hernandez' tribe? Where's the struggle except to imply white man's culture will not forgive him. Think again, you got a slap on the wrist, Hernandez.? You have support! It's within yourself young man. It's your problem to fix. No amount of co-dependent sympathy articles are going to make it better for you.

Circle has moved


Steven Gaudreau 1 year, 9 months ago

Nice to see the victims dad can forgive but the ljw know it all commenters can't.


Carol Bowen 1 year, 9 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?


JackMcKee 1 year, 9 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.


booyalab 1 year, 9 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?


pizzapete 1 year, 9 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.


Carol Bowen 1 year, 9 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.


mikekt 1 year, 9 months ago

Well,..... selling alcohol in excess to people is not a crime;...... & so it has no victims at all ?!..........RIGHT ? ! ? ! ? !

Not the person killed above nor the impaired driver that did the deed because he was too drunk to know that he had no business driving or even being on the street, as a pedestrian in Lawrence, himself !

If we were taking about a dope sale that lead to a death, the dealer might be charged with murder ?

Start arresting bar owners & servers & charge them with a misdemeanor for enabling a public problem that irresponsibly leads to a death, in their pursuit of profits .

Force them to post bonds & get a Lawyers to pay for . Put them on diversion & order them not to drink at work or serve the already drunk .

Mean? No,..... mean would be forcing the bar people to wear large colorful badges that says that they over served a pedestrian who was hit & died or a drunk driver that did a homicide as in the above case, after being over served at their bar............ & name them & that bar !

Had a distant neighbor years ago in O.P. who's on foot daughter was killed by a hit & run driver in Lawrence, Ks, late one night, years back .

i never went into the details with him because it ruined his family life & marriage . it was an overwhelming loss & destroyed both him & his wife.

That was not a problem to the bar folks ! Business as usual !

And the "Phony-Evangelicals" in Topeka, are now allowing it to be sold in Grocery Stores everywhere .

Get ready to deal with drunks ( on a mission ) in your Grocery Stores.

Owwwww ! What if the drunks puke at the cash registers ? Or open the bottle before they pay for it, take a drink or two & put it back on the shelf?

Coming to a Grocery near you !!!!!!!


Leslie Swearingen 1 year, 9 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.


Charlie Sabotage 1 year, 9 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.


ironhead80 1 year, 9 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.


sierraclub 1 year, 9 months ago

Room for forgiveness? He ran over a killed a young women and got a slap on the wrist. She is dead, buried in the ground. What is he doing? Her life was cut short and all he got was a sore wrist.


MacHeath 1 year, 9 months ago

It always amazes me that some folks that comment on here are so self-obcessed they can find no room for forgiveness. I am sure glad I didn't have parents like that. its the old "bad things don't happen to good people" ploy. People that act this way have serious character flaws. Small-minded and self-absorbed. Maybe they will learn, but it will probably be the hard way.


RDE87 1 year, 9 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.


somedude20 1 year, 9 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


OonlyBonly 1 year, 9 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!


Amy Heeter 1 year, 9 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.


Flap Doodle 1 year, 9 months ago

Rachel Leek has no life to rebuild.


Liberal 1 year, 9 months ago

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

That is part of the problem, he looks at himself as a drunk Indian, while I look at him as a person who was drunk who caused a horrible accident to occur.

It matters not what color his skin is. The fact of the matter is people (especially kids) in this town every night of the week get in their car and drive after they have been drinking. Just go out at 2:00 and see what is happening in the streets. The only thing unusual about this is that it does not happen more often. I would love to know the stats of how many fender benders (unreported) happen in this town, the number has to be astronomical.

I hope the young man and the family of Ms. Leek find peace, and I certainly hope some others learn from his mistakes. (unfortunately people learning is not going to happen)


Leslie Swearingen 1 year, 9 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.


consumer1 1 year, 9 months ago

Wow! They beat me to the post :o(


consumer1 1 year, 9 months ago

Kenny, I think your comments are right on! However, I also think there will be many many post following filled with vile against this young man.


rightsaidfred 1 year, 9 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.


Kenny Nall 1 year, 9 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.


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