"Is this Brooke?

"Is this Aunt Brooke?”

A pudgy pink finger slides over to the framed picture and stops right over the chin of a familiar face.

Then the little girl scoots across the polished oak dining-room table – shoes and all – and stares at the image.

“A-a-a-a-h,” the baby girl, Caitie, croons, brimming with joy at her simple, barely verbal victory of giving the right answer.

With the tip of her index finger, she taps the glossy photograph, then looks up at her grandparents, Marty and Kim Walton.

“A-a-a-h,” she says again, glowing at the prospect of more accolades.

Since none come, the curly-haired charmer stands her ground, waving her hands to remind her doting family that she is not getting off her grandmother’s table without a reward.

Two big smiles from her grandparents and a loving pat on the back from her mother eventually do the trick and Caitie slides down onto her mom’s lap.

“Yes, that’s right,” her grandma says encouragingly. “That’s right. And who’s that over there? Mommy and Grandpa and Grandma. That was at Aunt Brooke’s graduation.”

Caitie is only 21 months old.

Preciously precocious, at this bubbly age, she is far too young to understand the cap and gown her Aunt Brooke is wearing.

But one day, she will want to know.

Simple things at first, the kinds of questions that cut with the chisel of innocence only young children can hold with impunity to a grieving heart.

Why is Aunt Brooke never at Grandma and Grandpa’s house?

Why is she smiling from the pictures on the wall but never reaches down to give Caitie a hug?

Why is she never home to play with Caitie and the doggie?

Then, as she gradually begins to comprehend that Aunt Brooke will not be returning home and she will never meet her except in the stories her family tells, Caitie will probably ask the most hurtful why?

Why not?

What happened with her?

WHAT HAPPENED

At around 7 p.m. on March 18, 2006, Leland Bennett, a criminal investigator at the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Department, received a call from the dispatcher, asking him to report to the scene of a fatal accident at Exit 17 off I-80, southeast of Underwood.

When he arrived at the site 25 minutes later, and before he started taking pictures and video, which he would then use to reconstruct the accident, Bennett saw a 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix with a crushed front facing in a southwesterly direction. A 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue lay crushed in the westbound ditch, its back seat missing from the impact.

The temperature was 43 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind's velocity measured at 11 mph.

The driver of the Oldsmobile, David Hartwig, and his four passengers, Paul Dornbier, Mark McCloy, Brooke Walton and Chris Wallner, were returning to the University of Iowa from spring break in Colorado.

They had cut their ski trip a day short to avoid a forecasted ice storm.

But it wasn’t the wrath of nature that ripped apart their world.

It was Rudolph Huebner who changed the lives of the students, their families and friends—all people he had never met—and his own.

In mid-afternoon, on March 18, 2006, their paths crossed, irreversibly and violently. 

Traveling eastbound on Interstate 80 at a speed in excess of 97 mph, Huebner approached the intersection of G30, near Underwood.

As Huebner pushed the pedal even harder, he steered his car over the crest of a hill and, after 137 feet of skid marks, crushed the vehicle carrying the students just as they were heading for the onramp to the westbound highway.

Investigator Bennett calculated the impact speed at 88 mph.

Huebner's vehicle crashed into Hartwig’s, snuffing the life out of two of his passengers.

Mark McCloy, 22, died instantly upon impact.

Brooke Walton, 19, succumbed to her injuries at an Omaha hospital.

Christopher Wallner, 22, who suffered a ruptured diaphragm, head injuries, and displaced abdominal organs, barely survived a two-month–long coma.

David Hartwig, 20, had a fractured spine, broken kneecap and hip, and was left with a limp for life.

Paul Dornbier, 21, suffered a bruised lung and subsequent pneumonia.

Under different circumstances, Huebner could have sat in a lecture hall with Brooke, Dave or Paul or interned, as Mark did, in then-Gov. Tom Vilsack’s office.

But that is not how the life of the then 21-year-old Tabor man intersected with the lives of the crash victims—all excelling in their fields, all eager to realize their potential.

Just minutes before they hopped into the Oldsmobile, the students posed for a picture outside the Hartwigs’ garage.

When Dave’s mother snapped the shot, she could not have imagined that this was the last picture of her son with Brooke, the girl he had planned to marry.

WHY IT HAPPENED

“Probably the most significant aspect of this collision was that Rudolph Huebner was driving at a high rate of speed while being over the legal limit of alcohol in his system,” the investigator concluded in his report.

It was not an accident, as Hueber later told investigators and as some of his family, friends and co-workers, seeking leniency for him argued before the judge.

Instead, it was a deliberate choice, which resulted in the death of two innocent young people, and caused serious injuries to three others, countered Pottawattamie Assistant County Attorney Christine Shockey.

She later told the parole board that Huebner was not remorseful for his actions.

Huebner knew or should have known what the consequences of drinking and then sitting behind the steering wheel would be, she told the board.

Just three months prior to the deadly crash, a judge ordered him to complete the juvenile version of a 12-hour class for OWI offenders, and then dropped the charge of minor in possession of alcohol.

Three other relatively minor traffic accidents, which remain on Huebner’s record, also suggest that his driving skills needed a serious upgrade.

IGNORING LESSONS

But on the fatal day, Huebner ignored all the lessons the system expected him to have absorbed.

His choices turned him from a carefree man who loved his parties and booze, but also made chicken soup for his girlfriend when she was sick with the flu, to what the Department of Corrections called offender #6885195.

That day, Huebner came back to his apartment around 3 p.m. and began drinking, an activity he had indulged in excessively the night before.

Looking for a buzz, with his girlfriend, Krista Dethloff, and another friend in tow, Huebner went across the street to the Country Store to buy smokes for his sister, with whom he had decided to hang out later that evening.

At the store, he bragged to the clerk that he had been drinking, records show.

He then sat behind the wheel, driving at speeds double the 45 mph speed limit.

Exactly what he was thinking when he began passing vehicles in the oncoming lane, and veering in and out of traffic, at times barely clearing the cars behind him, would never be known.

His girlfriend later reluctantly told investigators that when she begged him to slow down, he said he felt “like doing something crazy.”

Watching the needle of the speedometer go over 90 mph, the friend in the back seat, Emily Ortman, fastened her seatbelt, fearing that Huebner might kill somebody at the breakneck speed.

When she told him so, he snapped that he did not care, records show.

Had he heeded the eerie warning that came just minutes before the crash, the outcome could have been different.

Had he not had blood alcohol level of .180, the story might have had a better ending.

Had he hit the brakes at 55 mph as a responsible driver would, he would have avoided the crash, the investigator wrote in his report.

Could Huebner have conceived that "crazy" can turn into tragedy?

Yes, says Shockey, the prosecutor, who charged Huebner with two counts of vehicular homicide and three counts of inflicting serious injury by vehicle.

“Rudolph Huebner did not make a mistake,” she told the parole board.  “With all intent and deliberation, he became intoxicated and got behind the wheel of a car.  He felt like ‘doing something crazy,’ and he accomplished exactly what he set out to do.”

At the scene, as the crash victims reeled from the deadly impact, Huebner started to hide his beer cans in the back seat, and then sat on the curb with his girlfriend, discussing  “how much trouble he was in,” according to records.

He then blamed the crash on the other driver, Shockey told the board.

“He placed a great deal of blame on David Hartwig, stating that he pulled out in front of him and he could do nothing to avoid the accident, speed and intoxication notwithstanding,” Shockey said.

FOUR YEARS AND 199 DAYS IN PRISON

On July 9, 2007, Huebner was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for reckless driving, a lesser charge than the vehicular homicide for which he was originally charged with.

The prosecutor decided to plead him down because the chain of custody of his blood sample had been broken, Shockey told the Cedar Falls Times in a recent telephone interview.

Records show that the sample had been placed in a sealed but unmarked cardboard box in the sheriff’s refrigerator for a month before being sent to the DCI lab.

Shockey said she offered Huebner a deal because she wanted to make sure he served time behind bars.

“Juries are unpredictable,” she said, explaining why, after talking with the victims’ families, she opted not to take her homicide charges to 12 community members sitting in the jury box.

Addressing the parole board, the prosecutor made the case that Huebner, who called his prosecution “unfair” because “it was just an accident,” showed no remorse for his actions.

He did not attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or seek a chemical dependency evaluation, as suggested by the court, she told the parole board.

Shockey also argued that Huebner’s lack of responsibility is illustrated by the fact that he fathered a child while awaiting trial on two Class B and three Class C felonies.

She viewed this choice not as a mitigating circumstance, as the defense argued, but as an aggravating one.

“That child will now be born without a father, and will have to rely in the future on the support of a convicted felon,” she said.  “I submit that this is not the behavior of a remorseful person who vows to change his irresponsible, immature decisions in the future.”

On July 16, 2007, Rudolph Huebner entered the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City.

He is scheduled for release on Jan. 21, 2012, having served four years and 199 days for the deaths of the two students he never knew and the injuries he caused to three others.

Reached in prison, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Fred Scaletta, the Iowa Department of Corrections'  spokesperson, says that for each day served, inmates get 1.2 days shaved off the end of their sentence.

On Feb. 16, the parole board put him on work release in a residential facility in his home county. Huebner will move there as soon as a slot becomes available and serve four months and 80 hours of public service.

The Waltons, and the other victims’ families, who by law receive information of Huebner’s whereabouts, say they are unsure if he has been punished enough.

Sitting in their living room on a recent Saturday, they recall how, while they were at a card game, they had received a call from an Omaha hospital emergency room asking them to call back.

When they returned the phone call, doctors told them there was nothing they could do for their daughter.

THE PAIN OF HEALING

With the fifth anniversary of Brooke’s death looming, the family finds some comfort looking at pictures, but with each turn of the album page, as the stories of what could have been start to emerge, their eyes fill with tears.

Adding to their constant burden is the thought that the tragedy did not have to happen.

“How much time is enough?” Kim Walton says, reflecting on Huebner’s release. “How do you ever put a price on life? That is hard to do.”

“From my perspective, it is not enough,” Marty says.

At the end of the day, they say, their daughter is not going to come back, but eventually Huebner will be reunited with his family, girlfriend and son.

Prosecutor Shockey summed up their family's predicament this way:

“Even if he [Huebner] never takes another drink of alcohol, even if he never exceeds the speed limit again, and even if he does his best to be a wonderful father, Mark McCloy and Brooke Walton will never live another day. Their parents will never watch them graduate, see them get married, or even give them one last hug. During their dying moments, no one was there for them. As a parent, I cannot imagine a more hollow place, a more permanent sadness or a more unhealable pain.”

Krista Dethloff, Huebner’s girlfriend and mother of his son, said she is trying to move on “while never forgetting,” but declined to be interviewed further for this article.

The Waltons say they understand that no amount of punishment would bring Brooke and Mark back, but wonder if Huebner has truly transformed himself.

“Only time will tell,” says Brooke's sister, Brandi Archibald.

Answering questions about Brooke has become part of the Walton legacy now.

And in a way – and with time – the Waltons have accepted that as part of carrying their cross, they often talk to sheer strangers about their daughter.

About who Brooke was – a caring and compassionate young woman who never got a chance to celebrate her 20th birthday, or marry the man she loved or brighten her parents’ golden years with grandchildren.

She dreamed of becoming America’s first female president and worked hard to make this happen.

The Waltons have found some peace in giving back to the community that has given so much to Brooke, they say. They sponsor an annual golf tournament in her name in Waverly, the proceeds from which fund W-SR’s Dollars for Scholars. The family has also set up a fund to give a scholarship to a graduating senior.

Brooke’s mom, Marty, her sister and her aunt, Kris Marmie, have also talked about starting a chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, after the one in Hudson, the only one in northeast Iowa, dissolved several years ago.

But most of all, on the anniversary of Brooke’s death, her parents hope that their daughter’s life would be best honored, if drivers of all ages, and especially teens think twice before reaching for the car keys after they have consumed alcohol.

“Our thing is mainly to remind everybody of the responsibility they take when they get behind the wheel,” Marty says, adding that proms pose a special danger. “If Brooke’s story can help save even just one life, then maybe Brooke’s life was not taken in vain.”

That may be a hard lesson to communicate.

The year Brooke and Mark were killed, 120 Iowa families lost loved ones to alcohol-related crashes, according to Scott Falb, a driver safety specialist with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

FIVE YEARS AFTER THE  ACCIDENT

Shockey recently told the Cedar Falls Times that she often prosecutes cases where teens “knowingly” get in the cars with drunk drivers with whom they had partied irresponsibly, but what makes this case so tragic is that “the defendant and the victims never met each other.”

“They were completely innocent,” she said. “And they find themselves face to face with a drunk driver and that ends their life. The loss was so devastating for the families and the communities. I think about it at least once a week because of how tragic it was the people who died were people that had a future and would have been assets to their communities. I think about the continued suffering of the people that lived. The whole thing is so incredibly horrible and sad, it’s one of those things that I will never forget.”