Janelle’s Message Four Years Later

How do you pack 18 years into a cedar chest?  That’s the question Don and Bonnie Kaufman are asking themselves today as they pack their daughter Janelle’s room to move four years after she was killed by a drunken driver in rural Harvey County. The couple recently built a house five miles from the one Janelle and her siblings, Steve and Michelle, grew up in.  “She was our baby,” Bonnie said. “We didn’t have to move anything or pack it up. She was upstairs, and we left it just like she did. Everything she touched is where she put it last.”  Janelle, who died four years ago today when the car she was riding in was struck by a drunken driver, will have a new room in the new house.  “It won’t be everything like she had it,” Don said. “It’ll be a little bit different.”  “We’re going to call it Janelle’s room,” Bonnie said. “When she was gone we not only had empty nest, we had empty house, forever.”  Bonnie said she plans to keep Janelle’s stuffed animals out but pack nearly everything else into the cedar trunk she received for her high school graduation May 15, 1995, just a few weeks before her death.

The Kaufmans struggle every day with their loss, they said. However, every opportunity they have to talk about Janelle is an opportunity to impact someone else’s life.  That’s why the couple speaks to high school students in programs like the Safe and Responsible Driving program created by Rick Pohl, Newton firefighter and EMT, and his colleagues at the Newton Fire/EMS Department. “This one is a little harder,” Bonnie said Wednesday morning before speaking to a group of Newton High School driver education students. “It’ll be four years Friday (today).”  Bonnie said she and her husband like to bring their message to high school students.  “Especially when children die, it’s like you don’t want anyone to forget her. It feels good to say her name. It hurts, but it feels good. For me, it’s like maybe Janelle’s not done,” Bonnie said. “Maybe her work here isn’t done.”  Janelle and her brother Steve both graduated May 15, Janelle from Moundridge High School and Steve from Baker University.  “I stayed with Janelle in Moundridge and Don went to Baker with Steven,” she said.  She said while watching Janelle get ready graduation morning, she had a feeling that she needed to tell Janelle she loved her and give her a kiss.

“I knew she wasn’t going to be with us much longer,” Bonnie said. “She’d be going away to college.”  That summer was a busy one for Janelle as she prepared to go to Sterling College in the fall, where she would play basketball, and worked part time. Her sister Michelle got married and Janelle and her boyfriend Drue Durst, whose older brother married Michelle, were both in the wedding. “It was an exciting time,” Bonnie said.  Sunday, July 9, 1995, Bonnie said she remembers thinking how beautiful Janelle looked that day. Of course, when her mom told her, Janelle was embarrassed.  “We spent the afternoon by the pool working on our tans,” Bonnie said. “But a computer problem I was having at work was bothering me. Janelle told me to go in (to McPherson) because she was sure I could figure it out.”  So, Don and Bonnie went to town and fixed the computer. The telephone rang as they were leaving her shop, and Bonnie went to answer it.  “She asked about the computer problem. I told her I’d fixed it and she told me she knew that I could do it. Then she told me she loved me,” Bonnie said.

When Don and Bonnie got home, Steve told them Janelle and Drue had gone for pizza in Hesston. As more time passed, Steve began to worry about them. When the phone rang, Steve answered it. “I’d never seen anyone go that dead white,” Bonnie said. She picked up another extension and asked what was going on. She was told she and Don needed to go to Newton Medical Center because there had been an accident. “The accident was four miles west of Hesston on Dutch Avenue,” Don said. “The most direct route to the hospital from our house went right by the accident scene.”  Don questioned sheriff’s officers at the scene as to how bad the accident was, identifying himself as the passenger’s father. Again, they were urged to hurry to the hospital.  “I was out of the car before it stopped,” Bonnie said.

She said one of Steve’s high school friends was among the people in the emergency room, but no one would look her in the eye. Then two official looking men walked up to her and one of them gave her the terrible news.  “He said, ‘I’m sorry, but your daughter has died,’ ” she recalled.  She said at first you just go into shock. You call people and they call more people for you. Hospital personnel asked the Kaufmans if they would like to see Janelle before she was taken away for an autopsy.  “I didn’t want them to do an autopsy,” Don said.  “My first thought was, ‘You can’t cut my daughter.’ Even if she’s dead, I didn’t want them to do it,” Bonnie agreed.  But because alcohol was involved, they had no choice and eventually consented, Don said.  “It’s scary (to go in and see Janelle) because you don’t know what you’re going to see,” Don said.  Janelle had a sheet wrapped around her body, Bonnie said, and she still looked so pretty. Before Drue left the hospital with a broken collar bone and scratches, he brought Bonnie his shoes.  “He and Janelle had a joke about his shoes,” she said. “Drue would take them off as he came in the house and straighten them. Janelle would come by and kick them. “He asked us to put his shoes with hers,” Bonnie said. “They only gave us one of them.”  Don said he and Bonnie even went out and searched the field where the accident occurred, but they’ve never found the other shoe.

As the funeral arrangements were made, the couple started to ask questions, wanting to know every detail of their daughter’s last minutes and seconds.  Drue recounted how they were laughing and talking on the way home, Janelle sitting, turned toward him with two pizza boxes in her lap. He said she never knew what hit her. According to the autopsy, Janelle’s heart was ripped away from its place in her chest during the impact of the crash and she died of internal bleeding, Don said. “I want to believe she didn’t feel any pain,” Bonnie said. “It just broke my heart.”  It took a year to bring the man who hit Drue and Janelle to justice. Gerald Beal was sentenced Sept. 26, 1996, to serve five years and nine months with the state Department of Corrections. He is serving his sentence at the Norton Correctional facility and will be paroled sometime in 2000, Don said.  “It will be four years on Friday (today),” Bonnie told the students. “I don’t care if it would be 40 years, it would be so hard not to miss her.”  What’s especially hard for the couple is to know their daughter didn’t believe in drinking or going to the parties. She was wearing her seat belt and doing everything right.  “(The guy who hit Janelle) didn’t just start drinking,” Don said. “It was at least his third DUI. We (talk to groups) because we want, somehow, if there’s any way, to help people understand. It’s a conscious decision to drink and it’s a conscious decision to drive. Janelle’s dead forever. He gave up only five years of his life.”  “Life is made of choices,” Bonnie said. “Drinking and driving can do horrendous damage to families. Your choice can ruin so much.”

The Kaufmans are private people, but if by sharing their story and their lives even one student decides not to drink and drive, it’s worth all the pain.  “My hope is that people can learn from our pain without having to live it,” Bonnie said. “How do we know we won’t live through it again. I think they should make parents come to a program like this, too.  “I want (the kids) to know how much it hurts to lose somebody,” she added.  “To lose somebody to something so unnecessary,” Don said. “It was totally willful behavior. It can be controlled.”  The Newton Kansan, Newton Kansas.  July 9, 1999.  Page 1. 

Janelle Marie Kaufman, 18, lifetime Moundridge resident, died Sunday (July 9, 1995) at Newton Medical Center as a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident in Harvey county.  She was born May 8, 1977, in Moundridge to Don and Bonita (Nikkel) Kaufman. They survive of Moundridge.  She was a 1995 graduate of Moundridge High School and she was planning to attend Sterling College this fall. She was a member of the Eden Mennonite Church in rural Moundridge. She was a member of the National Honor Society, FHA, Pep Club, chorus, EYF and was a Stuco representative. During her senior year in volleyball she was named all-league, all-state, Canton-Galva All-Tournament Team and lettered all four years. In basketball she was named Hutchinson News, 2A First Team, Newton Kansan All Area First Team, Haven Tournament, All Tournament Team, Wichita Eagle, 2A Second Team, MCAA All League, and awarded the Bill Stevens Award Most Inspirational Player.

Survivors include her parents; one brother, Steven J. of Moundridge; one sister, Michelle Durst of Overland Park; and grandparents, Leland and Esther Nikkel of Moundridge.  The funeral will be at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday (July 12) at Eden Mennonite Church in rural Moundridge with Rev. Donovan Graber and Rev. Ed R. Stucky officiating. Burial will be in Eden Church Cemetery.  Friends may call until 9 p.m. Tuesday (July 11)  at the Harder-Kaufman Funeral Home in Moundridge. The family will greet friends from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  Memorials may be sent to the Moundridge High School basketball program in care of the funeral home.

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