Victims Embrace Man Who Maimed Them

By Jordan Cuddemi

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-25-2017 8:10 AM

White River Junction — Dale and Lisa O’Keefe made a request in Windsor Superior Court Tuesday morning that was as unexpected as it was unusual: They wanted a little personal time with Gustavo Chang, the man whose car had slammed into the motorcycle they were riding through Bethel in the summer of 2015.

Chang, 25, had already been escorted out the rear door to begin serving his sentence for gross negligent operation. And the O’Keefes had already testified how Chang’s actions had changed their lives forever — not just by causing Dale O’Keefe to lose his foot and Lisa O’Keefe to lose her leg, but by making it impossible for both to continue doing many of the things they most enjoyed in life.

The court granted their request, and the Wisconsin couple walked as best they could toward Chang as he was brought back into the courtroom. Each hugged him and exchanged words.

Chang broke down.

“I am so sorry,” a sobbing Chang said repeatedly as he leaned into Lisa O’Keefe. “I am so sorry.”

Tuesday was the first time the O’Keefes were able to face Chang; pretrial conditions had prohibited the three from having contact. The O’Keefes said they weren’t sure what type of a man they were going to encounter. Lisa O’Keefe said she was grateful Chang was “genuine” and “remorseful.”

During his plea and sentencing hearing, Chang, of Auburn, N.H., acknowledged that he made a mistake on July 14, 2015, when he agreed to drive a 1962 Chevrolet Impala that he and his boss, Angel Villanueva, had purchased in Brandon, Vt. The car was unregistered and uninspected, but rather than transporting it to Manchester, N.H., on a trailer, Chang had consented to drive it.

Around 2:30 p.m. that day, Chang descended a hill on Camp Brook Road in Bethel in the Impala when he told police he experienced brake trouble, lost control and collided with the O’Keefes’ Harley-Davidson, severing Lisa O’Keefe’s leg from above the knee and Dale O’Keefe’s foot.

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In court, the O’Keefes described how the collision has changed their lives.

Before the crash, they enjoyed long hikes, fishing and hunting trips, kayaking, snowmobiling and cross-country motorcycle rides, like the one they were on the day of the collision.

Now, all of those activities are virtually impossible for Lisa O’Keefe, who wears a prosthetic leg that gives her severe discomfort. Besides losing her leg, she suffered other debilitating injuries, including a fractured pelvis.

In addition to suffering a significant diminishment in the quality of their lives, the couple continues to be burdened by medical bills and the need to deal with their injuries. Lisa O’Keefe has another surgery scheduled.

“I have lost everything,” a crying Lisa O’Keefe said from a lectern in the center of the courtroom. “My injury will not heal. I will never walk normally again. ... I have lost myself and my dreams and my hopes. I did not deserve this.”

An emotional Dale O’Keefe recounted the couple’s adventures — getting married about 16 years ago in the Smoky Mountains, snowshoeing through the woods to look at animal tracks. “Now, all that has changed,” said the 66-year-old O’Keefe, who also wears a prosthetic device. “Everything I worked so hard for is gone.”

Lisa O’Keefe’s mother, Joy Critzman, also spoke. Critzman drove 22 hours to be with her daughter after the crash, and eventually quit her job to take care of the O’Keefes.

“You walked away,” Critzman said to Chang. “Dale and Lisa will never walk again without pain. ... Your reckless, thoughtless act has caused a lifetime of pain. ... I want you to think about that every time you get behind the wheel of a car for the rest of your life.”

Chang wept from the defense table as he listened intently. He then offered a statement of his own.

“I ask for your forgiveness, but I know that it would not be enough, nor are there words to describe the harm I have caused you, physical as well as emotional,” Chang said, his sobs intensifying.

Jordana Levine, his public defender, had to read the rest of Chang’s statement for him. Chang wrote that he was doing his boss a favor by driving the car home that day, and said he didn’t know that anything was wrong with the vehicle.

Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill supported that statement in court, saying Chang was acting under the direction of his boss, Villanueva, who accompanied Chang to Brandon, Vt., to buy the car.

“I wake up thinking about that moment; I have no appetite; I feel destroyed by what has happened,” Chang wrote. “At night, I hardly sleep, I have nightmares.”

Chang accepted an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of gross negligent operation with serious injury resulting and will serve 60 days of a one- to five-year sentence and remain on probation for three years. Prosecutors dropped a second identical felony charge.

Chang also will pay the O’Keefes $50 a month to go toward a restitution amount that hasn’t been determined.

Cahill, who prosecuted the case, said the O’Keefes supported the resolution to the case.

Windsor Superior Court Judge Theresa DiMauro said that this was the type of case she found most difficult.

“There are no words the court could think of to address the pain of the O’Keefes,” she said.

She accepted the terms of the plea agreement, noting that Chang is young and has no prior criminal record.

Levine acknowledged the difficulty of the case and observed that it could have turned out even worse: if not for Bethel resident Sandy Stevens, Lisa O’Keefe might have bled to death.

Stevens jumped out of her vehicle that afternoon and improvised a tourniquet to tie around Lisa O’Keefe’s leg to stop the bleeding. The 69-year-old had nothing more than a Girl Scout’s First Aid background, she said after court proceedings on Tuesday.

“It was instinct,” she said.

Vermont State Police has since given Stevens a Lifesaving Award for her actions. Stevens said she immediately transferred the award to Lisa O’Keefe.

“She is braver than I am,” Stevens said with a wide smile as she left the courtroom.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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