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.

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

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.”