WOODSTOCK – Before Thomas Burleson sat a broken man.
That man – Walter J. Depner – killed Burleson’s family in a drunken driving crash 15 years before, as they were returning home from Great America.
As Burleson sat on Friday in the back row of a McHenry County courtroom, Depner sat before a judge awaiting sentencing on a new driving under the influence charge he picked up in February 2013.
Judge Gordon Graham sentenced Depner to six years in prison for the 2013 DUI. Depner is eligible for day-for-day credit, which means he could be released in three years.
At the time of his latest arrest, Depner was on parole for the Aug. 21, 1999, crash that killed 34-year-old Eva Burleson and her three children: Daniel, 13; Tiffany, 11; and Dallis, 7. Thomas Burleson was seriously injured but survived. He lives in Crystal Lake with his wife, Mollie, and two sons.
In February 2013, Depner took 30 to 40 Klonopin pills and got behind the wheel, prosecutors said. Depner said it was a suicide attempt. He drove to his old neighborhood, which also is near the site of fatal crash. At the home of a former neighbor, he slumped over on a couch, sobbed, and repeated that “the accident was all his fault.”
For Thomas Burleson, that admission was 15 years in making. It was first time he’s heard Depner take responsibility for the crash that killed his family.
Depner fervently fought his earlier prosecution, and tried to shift blame to Burleson. After one court appearance, Depner said to Burleson “you’ll get yours.”
Burleson forgave Depner long ago, he said Friday outside the courtroom. After the sentencing hearing, he shook hands with Depner’s family and said he feels sorry for the man.
“When you see someone in that condition, even with our history, your heart goes out to him,” Burleson said.
Depner in July pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence. He faced anywhere from five to 10 years behind bars and was not eligible for parole.
In an emotional plea for leniency, Joseph Depner called his brother a good and generous man, and a casualty of an extended prison sentence. Depner served more than 12 years of his 14-year prison sentence for reckless homicide.
When he was released he had lost his wife, his family and his home. He couldn’t find work.
“I know he screwed up, but I’d like him to be around,” Joseph Depner said, but stopped briefly when hard sobs stole his words. “At least to help with mom and to be here if something happens to her.”
Walter Depner suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that went untreated during his prison term, his defense attorney said.
“Thirteen years of untreated guilt and depression,” his defense attorney Mark Facchini said. “And we’re surprised he’s back in the system because he tried to take his own life?”
Assistant State’s Attorney David Metnick rejected the idea of sympathy for Depner’s losses.
“The people who lost everything back in 1999 were Eva, Daniel, Tiffany and Dallis,” Metnick said. “It was Thomas Burleson who lost his wife and kids.
“… [Depner] earned every single day for killing four innocent people.”
Every year on the anniversary of the deaths of his family, and a daughter from his second marriage who also died in August, the Burlesons have a “celebrate life, celebrate family” day of remembrance. This year, they went to Great America.
On his Facebook, Burleson posted a side-by-side picture of the 1999 day his life was forever changed, and the 2014 day that still brimmed with a bright future.
“I just hope he gets the help he needs,” Burleson said. “I just hope he finds peace.”