By Norman K. Styer & Danielle Nadler
Seventeen months of grief flowed out in a Loudoun Circuit Court courtroom today as the family of Tristan Schulz testified about the devastating impact of the infant’s death after being run over by an SUV in a Lansdowne crosswalk.
Investigators say, on Aug. 31, 2016, Miller drove through the intersection on Riverside Parkway and Coton Manor Drive in Lansdowne, crashing into Mindy Schulz as she was pushing her infant son in a stroller through the crosswalk. The baby was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after. Mindy Schulz was injured and released from the hospital after three days of treatment.
On Wednesday, Judge Douglas Fleming was hearing testimony of victims and witnesses in advance of imposing a sentence on the driver John Miller.
Miller pleaded no contest last year to a charge of reckless driving and guilty to failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk—both misdemeanors. A charge of involuntary manslaughter was dropped by prosecutors, who said the evidence did not show aggravating factors—such as cell phone use—required to prove that charge. Miller faces a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail, plus fines and a year-long loss of his driver’s license.
Fleming scheduled two days to hear the testimony.
The morning session included tearful, emotional testimony from Tristan’s father Rodney Schultz, three of Tristan’s grandparents, Rodney’s sister and Mindy’s brother.
All told Fleming of the dramatic and continuing impact the death has had on their wellbeing and their family. Several said they have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Rodney Schultz testified for more than two hours, detailing the moments before and after the crash, and the toll that losing Tristan has taken on the family, both financially and emotionally.
“I could feel my soul being ripped apart. My life shattered,” he recalled about the moment a nurse informed him that his son did not survive and then holding his broken, motionless body.
Schulz said he often hears his baby boy crying in the middle of the night or even at work. Doctors call these “phantom cries” and parents of babies often hear their children’s cries, he said. “It’s a horrible thing when the child is safe at home and you hear them crying. When a child has been killed and you still hear their cries, it’s unbearable.”
Schulz and other relatives highlighted the deep impact of the death on his son Hayden, who had lobbied his parents for years to have a younger brother. He’s scared to go to sleep at night, he’s been taunted by classmates, and he wrote in his journal that he would kill himself if it meant seeing his brother again. “It has taken his innocence. It has taken his childhood. It has taken his sanity,” his father said.
The family and Miller lives in the same neighborhood, so Mindy and Rodney have to drive by his house every time they leave their home, and their oldest son has to walk by his house to get to school. “We can’t escape it,” Rodney Schulz said.
He also talked about other aspects of the tragedy, learning they had been placed on suicide watch at the hospital, the lack of privacy—he and Mindy once were recognized as Baby Tristan’s parents by diners in a Maryland restaurant, he said—unwanted, intrusive dealings with the media, and even the tough decision to donate his son’s organs. (The baby’s heart valves were implanted in two girls.)
For most of the day, family members’ comments went uninterrupted. There was one exception.
In the days after the crash, supporters of the Schulz family took to social media to accuse Miller of immediately calling an attorney from the scene. Addressing that subject in court, Rodney Schulz began talking about it from the stand, but the defense attorneys objected.
Judge Fleming asked Plowman why it was relevant. He said Schulz was trying to relay how it impacted him and his family, “and I think it reflects a little of [Miller’s] character.”
Miller’s attorney Steven T. Webster said that the lawyer at the scene was a neighbor of Miller’s and Schulz’s and happen to be walking by. Plus, he noted, Miller has a constitutional right to seek advice from a lawyer.
Fleming agreed. He acknowledged, “I don’t hold it against anybody for exercising their right to an attorney, even though someone may have certain feelings about it.”
Schulz was allowed to go on to explain how he and his family felt about the attorney on site that day. “To know that the man who took my son’s life and severely injured my wife stood by and did nothing to assist them other than call 911 is enraging,” he said.
In the afternoon, Mindy, who was injured in the same crash that killed Tristan, took the stand. Her hours-long statement stretched until the court recessed at almost 5 p.m., punctuated by short breaks she requested.
She described herself as “miserable, worn out, and depleted,” and said she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned in the past 17 months, it’s that somehow it keeps getting worse,” Shulz said.
She described in detail the day leading up to the crash, the crash itself, and her experience on the pavement, in the ambulance, and in the hospital. She said, “walking my son to school as a happy and proud mom is still the last truly happy memory I have,” and said of the moment she heard her younger son was dead: “At that moment I knew exactly what hell was because it had opened its doors.”
She also described the difficulty she endures because the Schulz family lives nearby the Millers, and of regularly passing through the intersection where the crash occurred. She also said she has had difficulty functioning in every day life.
“My husband and I are left to pick up the pieces and try to make a makeshift childhood for my son,” Shulz said. “It’s another impossible task in this impossible life.”
Her testimony will continue Thursday morning when the hearing resumes.
The defense attorneys are requesting that Miller, a 47-year-old golf instructor with no prior criminal history, be sentenced to probation, community service and/or a fine, but not be sent behind bars.
“Although the Schulz family is understandably angry and upset, neither the specific nor general deterrence justifies a jail sentence,” his attorneys wrote in a pre-sentencing memorandum.
The filing points to witness testimony and evidence suggesting that Miller’s view of the Schulz’s in the crosswalk may have been blocked by the vehicle in front of him—which may have come close to hitting Mindy and her son—or by the A-pillar on the driver’s side of the windshield.
“This suggests, tragically, that Mr. Miller did not see Mrs. Schulz pushing her son in the stroller,” the attorneys wrote.
Wester said he did not plan to call witnesses during the sentencing hearing, but asked the judge to consider a stack of letters submitted in support of Miller and his character. There are 36 pages of support letters from family members, golf students and co-workers.
The most significant is from Miller’s wife, Kathy Sullivan-Miller, who describes her husband’s continuing depression and remorse following the accident.
“John is worthy of your mercy in sentencing. He is and always was a law-abiding citizen with great regard for others,” she wrote. “He lives a very average, quiet life. He is remorseful and will live with this tragedy forever.”