Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I must be feeling better. I’ve been listening to Prefab Sprout. Headed by singer-songwriter, Paddy McAloon, the group has been around since the ‘80s. They make winsome music, the kind that makes you appreciate the miracle of life. In fact, that is the title of one of their songs: “Life’s A Miracle”

Tell someone you love them, there's always a way

And if the dead could speak I know what they would say

To you and me, don't waste another day

Show someone you love them, don't be scared to care

And if they fall into your arms you'll be surprised to find

The weight that you can bear, yeah, because

Life's a miracle

Paddy’s been dealing with some serious health issues lately, but he still writes beautiful, uplifting music.

One of my favorite P.S. songs is called “One of the Broken.” Paddy puts words in God’s mouth. God acknowledges the communication problem between him and his children. He advises those who want to connect with him to reach out to the broken, hurting people in the world. It’s a song inspired by Jesus’ identity with the least among us. A lesson in kindness. A lesson in love:

Sing me no deep hymn of devotion

Sing me no slow sweet melody

Sing it to one, one of the broken

And brother you're singing, singing to me

I never wanted to be the object of anyone’s pity, but I can’t deny that I am one of the broken. Countless times over the last 3-1/2 years I have heard words to the effect: “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” I often sense in these kind sentiments a note of regret. I understand. These good people want to do more - and would if they could. But a tragedy like ours forces us to acknowledge that that we are powerless to fix some situations, some things are irreparable. There is no bringing Rachel back.

I collect quotes. My first room-mate in college had a deck of notecards on which he had written positive statements. He would review them religiously, sitting on the edge of his bed or at his desk. To be honest, at the time I judged him to be a little out of step with the rest of the world. I found a new room-mate as quickly as I could. I remember him now as a harmless, decent person. I wish I had been more like him.

Anyway, one of the quotes I came across lately is from Padre Pio. He said, “Love is the first ingredient in the relief of suffering.” My mother used to kiss my boo-boo’s when I was a little boy. Her kisses didn’t stop the bleeding or the heal the wounds, but somehow they made me feel better. Now I know why.

I have said before that Jill and I prayed faithfully for the welfare and safety of our children. It has been a monumental struggle to come to terms with the fact that we prayed for Rachel’s safety in the morning before we knew she was already dead and her broken body was lying in a morgue awaiting an autopsy. Since then, it has been a challenge to find a good enough reason to bother to pray.

But, even before Rachel was killed, she was gone. She had moved to Irvine to pursue her dream of becoming a forensic scientist. A few years earlier, we had moved her from her home in southern California to an out of the way country town in northern California. Rachel always made it clear that she was a “So-Cal Girl At Heart,” and would return as soon as it was in her power to do so. When the time came, we had to let her go.

How does love bridge the gap of miles or years? We called her. We texted her. We emailed her. We thought of her constantly - worried for her, wondered about her. We prayed for her. Nothing we could do seemed like enough. With love, isn’t that always the way?

Another quote I found recently has helped me gain some perspective. St. Teresa of Avila said, “Prayer is an act of love.” The Bible says that prayer is a waste of breath without love. But when it springs from “the will to love,” as St. Teresa says, the message gets through.

One of the writers of the Philokalia said, “Love is greater than prayer.” I still have no confidence in the ability of prayer to secure my requests, but one thing I can affirm: my prayers for Rachel each and every day of her life were an act of love. That makes me feel a little better. I did what I could do, even when what I did looked like nothing so much as nothing at all. Maybe compassionate thoughts and heartfelt prayers and other acts of love are useless. But so are many beautiful, precious things. God knows my heart and yours, and, if what the Bible says is true, Rachel now knows perfectly well how much I have always loved her - and always will.

Prefab Sprout has another song that has spoken to me lately called, “God Watch Over You.” Obviously, it is a prayer for God’s protection. At first, it raised my hackles, cynical as I have become of the utility of such prayers. But, when I listened closely, I discovered that Paddy subtly reminds us that God can answer this prayer in different ways. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We are never out of his care:

I pray that god protects you...

God watch over you

every minute, every moment

God watch over you

every minute, every moment

God watch over you (and if you fall)

May he stretch out his arm and catch you,

keep you from harm, or sweep you

into his palm...but...

God watch over you

God watch over you

Love is never wasted. The Bible says, “Love Never Fails.” I can’t stop thinking of Rachel because I still love her. I still pray that God is watching over her - it’s all I can do.

There is a door it may seem locked

But in a little while, don't be shocked

Above the noise, behind the glare

I know you're listening out there somewhere, somewhere

I can't wait to meet you there, somewhere

I can't wait to meet you there

“Doo-Wop In Harlem” by Prefab Sprout

Monday, August 8, 2011


The following is the Victim's Impact Statement I made in Riverside Superior Court, August 5, 2011 in People VS Elva Diaz, convicted of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter and sentenced to the aggravated term of ten years. It was one of eight Victim's Impact Statements presented to the court on that day and one of 31 submitted in writing for the court's consideration. It is by no means the best.

Honorable Judge Mark Johnson:

My name is Steven Winebrener Elliott. I am the father of Rachel Amaris Elliott.

First, I want to thank you for presiding over the trial in such a fair and reasonable manner. I don’t say this to flatter or manipulate you in any way: This is simply the only opportunity I may have to express my gratitude.

Because of the way you conducted the trial, I have the confidence that you will justly sentence the woman responsible for killing my daughter.

During the trial, you recessed the proceedings for a morning so that a juror could accompany her minor daughter to the airport. You said more than once that you honored the juror’s request because you are a father of a 14-1/2 year old daughter yourself and would want to send her off personally if she were going on a trip on an airplane. From this, I know that you understand a father’s love for his daughter. There are things words cannot express. My love for Rachel is one of them. I am grateful that I have the confidence that you already know what Rachel means to me, because you obviously love your own daughter and can imagine the horror of losing her.

Your Honor, Rachel didn’t deserve to die. Rachel wasn’t sick. She wasn’t careless. Her death was not an accident. It was not her fault. It was senseless and sickeningly violent. Rachel loved life and made the most of it. I want to impress upon you and everyone else in this courtroom who never had and has now forever been denied the opportunity to know Rachel personally, the kind of person she was in life, and the precious daughter she was to me.

My wife and I tried to teach respect for the law, personal responsibility, compassion, and the value of hard work to our children, and we have tried to model these virtues in our own lives. Rachel learned these lessons well, and was a remarkably capable, responsible, and caring young woman. She knew even before she learned to drive that driving while intoxicated is dangerous to human life, and she worked hard to prevent it.

I am a family man. I don’t have a college degree. I have worked hard, long hours in construction all my adult life to provide for my family. The best I have to show for my efforts is a loving wife and two wonderful children. Now I have one.

I married the woman I love, and we decided to raise children together. We had just two, and God blessed us with first a girl and then a boy. Before the kids went to school, Jill, my wife, stayed home to care for them. It was difficult, but we managed to scrape by.

The night of June 23, 1989 was the most wonderful night of my life. I recognized instantly that Rachel was a miracle straight from the hands of God. I felt the weight of responsibility as I held her in my arms. I wanted to prove myself worthy of this priceless gift. I made it my life’s devotion to nurture and protect her.

Rachel was a precocious child. She began talking when she was only 7 months old, and, to my delight, her first word was “Da-Da.” Every night before I put her to bed I would take Rachel outside to say, “Good-night” to the stars. I would read to her, pray with her and for her, and sing her to sleep.

As she grew, Rachel continued to give me cause for wonder. She loved to sing, and had a beautiful voice. She was bright and beautiful and affectionate and a delight to everyone who knew her. When she was in junior high school, she asked me to baptize her. She revealed a tender, compassionate heart, a passion for justice, an incisive intelligence, and a native drive for achievement and excellence that we, her parents, only wish we could take credit for. Jill and I simply marveled at the outstanding woman Rachel was becoming in every way right in front of our very eyes.

Just like every other human being, Rachel wasn’t perfect. She was strong-willed and so intelligent that maintaining our authority as her parents was always a struggle. Sometimes we had to concede that she honestly knew better than we did. I always had the suspicion that the very traits that sometimes made life with Rachel difficult would eventually prove to be her greatest strengths. We tried not to break her independent spirit, but to foster in her a desire to use her power for good. We tried to encourage her to use the gifts and opportunities she was given to bless and benefit others.

And in her short life, Rachel did. I was always proud of her. I was never more proud than on the day this photo was taken. It was taken at her Senior Awards Ceremony. She literally received more awards and scholarships than she was able to carry back to her car by herself. We had to help her. I am not alone in my conviction that Rachel could have been or done anything she desired. Her gifts and abilities were matched with the drive and ambition that is essential to achievement. Sadly, some of the scholarships Rachel received that day had to be returned. She didn’t have time to use them.

A Victim’s Impact Statement is supposed to be about how I have suffered and what I have lost personally. But it is difficult to speak about my losses when I measure them against what Rachel has lost: Her life, upon which every other gift, right and privilege depends. Obviously, I have lost a daughter; a good daughter; my only daughter. I have had no greater joy in this life than being Rachel’s Daddy. As a husband and father, there is nothing on this earth I cherish more dearly than my family. I would gladly give my life for any one of them. I wish I could trade my life for Rachel’s. I wish I could have bargained for Rachel’s life as Elva Diaz has bargained for her freedom; I wish I could have defended Rachel’s life as Aimee Vierra has defended Elva Diaz’ freedom. The lives of my family are the only thing in this world I would not, under any circumstances, willingly give. Nevertheless, Rachel’s life was taken from her, from me, from this world, by a 28 year-old mother and former ambulance driver/emt who couldn’t be bothered or persuaded to find another way home after a night of binge drinking. It is so infuriatingly and tragically senseless...No excuse or explanation can change that brutal fact.

I want Ms Diaz to know something: Rachel might not have been alone in her car the night of February 21, 2008. Our son, Erik, was visiting friends down here in Riverside the night Rachel was killed. Before she left to visit the family of her junior high school friend in Corona, she invited my son and their two friends, Spencer and Emily Osborne, to go with her. By God’s grace, or dumb luck, they declined. Otherwise, Ms Diaz, the life-saver, would have been responsible for the deaths of four wonderful young people that night. She would have completely wiped out the work of the best 20 years of our marriage and left Jill and me with nothing to show for it but memories and ashes. She would have been responsible for the devastation of two families. When she refused to be dissuaded from driving home drunk from Sportman’s Bar, did she not care that it could just as easily have been her own child rounding the curve in the opposite lane of traffic? But it wasn’t her own child: it was mine.

The news that Rachel had been killed came on a day like so many other days, catching us in the middle of our routine. In many ways it was like we too were hit head-on by an SUV.

Imagine your cell phone rings as you are on your way to work in the morning. You are making the same drive you have made a thousand other mornings, past all the familiar landmarks. Thoughts of the day’s obligations occupy your mind. But this phone call is unlike the thousands of others you have received at times and places like these. Everything has changed for you; you just don’t know it yet. Your life as you knew it is already over. Every hope and dream you had of a happy and joyful future is dead. While you slept your precious daughter was dying. While you went about your morning routine, you had no idea that the life you built with the woman you love was already in ruins. Your little girl, the only one who called you “Daddy”, is gone and there is no bringing her back. You answer the phone and take the news.

Suddenly you are thrown into an unfamiliar universe. You have considered what your family would do if you were to die unexpectedly. But this possibility has never entered your mind. It’s not supposed to happen like this. People are sympathetic, but they need answers: What will you do with Rachel’s body? Will you have a funeral or memorial service? When and where will it be held, and who will officiate? Will there be music? What charities will you recommend as memorial recipients? Will you write an obituary? How will you summarize your daughter’s life? How can you? There are too many deadlines... Everyone you look at is confused and in pain. Everyone needs help, but you have nothing to offer, because you can’t even help yourself; you can barely function. And that was just the beginning of sorrows...

I have suffered in every way imaginable over the three and a half years since Rachel was killed. My father, wife and I run a small business. Three-fourths of our work-force has been crippled by grief and the financial and time demands of a fugitive hunt and this judicial process. I have suffered emotionally and spiritually, though I can’t begin to describe it: The light of my life has gone out, and I fumble in the darkness. I have been plagued with depression and mysterious, stress-related digestive disorders that have gone undiagnosed for almost 2 years. I am not the man I was. I believe I never will be.

Sometimes I glimpse a young woman with the sunshine glowing on her shoulders and the breeze ruffling the little hairs at the back of her neck. Her reality reduces me to tears - just the simple, miraculous fact of her life. Rachel was a real girl like that once. Rachel should be laughing in the sunshine, texting her friends, ordering take-out, falling in love. She should be.

One of the most devastating effects of Rachel’s death has been what it has done to the young people who knew her - our son, Erik, Rachel’s brother, especially. Rachel was the one who kept her friends out of trouble. When they would drink, she would insist on driving them home. She studied while they partied. She worked while they played. She cared while they pursued their selfish interests. When a person like Rachel is deprived of life and denied the rewards that come from her hard work and personal sacrifice, how do you rationalize it? How do you convince her brother, her friends, that it is still worth while to make the effort, to work hard, to be a good citizen? Imagine a 17 year old having to deal with the death of the person he lived with every day of his young life and having to face the rest of his life without his only sister who loved him fiercely. I can’t stand to think of it. He wasn’t even able to write a Victim’s Impact Statement.

Your Honor, as a family man, I ask you to imagine watching your wife, your surviving child, and all the other family and friends who knew and loved your dead daughter suffering around you. There is nothing you can do to shield them from the pain. There is nothing you can do to make it better. You must watch helplessly as they fall apart. This has been the pitiless torture I have only just barely been able to survive. And, to tell you the truth, often, I really haven’t wanted to. What do I have to look forward to? I feel my best days, when my daughter and I shared this world, are behind me now. I will never again hear Rachel’s sweet voice, her laugh; I will never feel her little hand in mine; I will never smell the scent of her silky hair under my nose as I kiss the top of her head. I will never see the remarkable woman she should have become. I will never hold her children. I am the husband of a wonderful woman and the proud father of a fine son, and for that I am grateful. They inspire in me the strength I need to go on living. But I miss her. I always will...

Your Honor, I believe Elva Diaz deserves the most severe sentence allowable. She gave Rachel a sentence of death and those who love her a life-sentence of sorrow and suffering without the benefit of a trial. I reject the notion that Rachel died so that Elva Diaz could be taught a valuable life lesson. As a 28 year-old mother and former ambulance driver, she should have known better than to drink and drive. I believe Elva Diaz’ best service to society will only be as an example for others, as a caution against the foolish and heartless course of action she chose.

I trust Your Honor to do what is fair and just in the eyes of the law. I know that no judgment you make will bring Rachel back. That is the one and only thing I desire, and the very thing you are powerless to give. I will never see my daughter’s face again in this life. I can only hope there is another.

Thank you for listening, Your Honor. And thank you for your service to Rachel, to the community that loves her, and to this country in the cause of justice. God bless you.


We thought it would be a huge relief when the trial had concluded. There was a month between the end of the criminal trial for Elva Diaz and the sentencing hearing on August 5, 2011. We had to be away for two weeks for the trial, and when we returned home, we found that we had a lot of catching up to do: the bills had piled up, the garden and the yard was overgrown, and the to do list had increased at work - urgent demands all vying for our attention. We found ourselves unexpectedly stretched thinner than we had been in long time.

To add to our distress, we were tasked with writing a Victim’s Impact Statement. We had known for three and a half years that the day would come when we would need to submit one. And we have dreaded the prospect for as long as we have known about it. How could we possibly hope to articulate what Rachel means to us? How could we describe the kind of person she was? How could we convey how her death has impacted us? Multiply them as we may, we knew mere words could never bring Rachel to life. Every attempt to capture her essence, the depth of our pain, or the quality and magnitude of our love is doomed to failure.

Sentencing. Making a sentence. A sentence is something meaningful - but it is also an artificial construct, a symbolic approximation of truth, an interpretation of reality at some remove. For us sentencing meant making a declarative statement of our love and our loss of Rachel, however inadequate it may prove to be

Our Victim’s Impact Statements were to be read and considered by the Probation Department for sentencing recommendation and by the judge for sentencing determination. We invited anyone affected by Rachel’s death to submit a statement. We never knew how much our words might influence the actual decision making process, but we hoped, at least, to impress upon those who read or heard them what we all have lost in losing Rachel. A surprising number of people - over 30 in all - submitted statements. Each one captured something unique about Rachel and her impact on the person who wrote it. Jill compared the final package we put together to a multifaceted jewel, each perspective revealing a slightly different aspect of Rachel - the whole an impressive thing of beauty. Reading them was an intense emotional experience for us, and we will treasure each one as a precious gift for as long as we live.

We were surprised both by who did and who didn’t submit statements. We don’t resent those who didn’t, because we understand the difficulty and futility of the task. Some people tried and never succeeded in finding words. Some people were silenced from the outset by the overwhelming impossibility of the task and never actually put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as the case might be). I sat down at the computer one Saturday morning with much fear and trembling, not knowing whether I would be able to find the words or not, fearing that I wouldn’t. I was nearly paralyzed with anxiety, panic increasing as each moment passed, trying not to entertain the idea of failure, powerless to banish the thought from my mind. I didn’t want to let Rachel down. Early on, as I had imagined the task, I fantasized about my statement being the best thing I had ever written (since it was without question the most important). But, mercifully, I realized that was unrealistic, demanding too much of myself, and I settled for just getting the job done with some degree of authenticity. I accepted that my words would be inadequate and that my love for Rachel could never be satisfactorily expressed. I gave myself the freedom I needed to hazard the attempt and to fail.

In the end, I did write a statement only four typed pages long. I can’t judge whether it is good or bad, adequate or inadequate. I was just relieved I would have something to read to the judge in Elva’s presence at the sentencing hearing. Jill’s statement was 12 pages long, and that was not enough to say all she wanted to say. Judge Mark Johnson was touched by the words of the eight people who read their statements in court, though, and it was clear by his bearing that he sympathized both with our loss and the difficulty of our task. To him, Rachel was as real as our pain. That he understood what we had lost is a surprising source of comfort to us. For that, more than anything else, we are grateful.

A sentence is finite. We understand endings. A sentence is a punishment with an end in sight. For Elva, the sentence put a period on the term of her punishment. It is, I suppose, ultimately a hopeful thing. There will be a predetermined end to the unpleasantness of the legal consequences for her crimes. Judge Mark Johnson sentenced Elva Diaz to the upper or “aggravated” term for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter. Ten years. Perhaps, in the bewildering calculus of the legal system, three or four years with credit for time served. Now Elva Diaz knows how long she will have to suffer.

But it is not so for us. Our sentence is indefinite and continues on for as long as we can imagine the future. A run-on sentence. It never really makes a point, never reaches any sensible conclusion...