Ruben Rosario: When a drunk driver killed her daughter, she knew what to do
Pioneer Press

What's it like to learn your teenage daughter has been killed in a car crash and you are an eight-hour drive away when you get the news? Catherine Casey knows.

"It feels like half of your brain doesn't want to believe it and the other half is making the necessary phone calls and making (funeral) arrangements," the 17-year Minneapolis police veteran and mother of two says as she recalls the most traumatic day of her life. She got the news while at the funeral of a friend of a very close friend in Roseau, Minn.

Among the phone calls she received and made during that gut-wrenching drive back to the Twin Cities four years ago was one from an organ-donation service.

Deanna Casey, 16, as beautiful a kid as you could find anywhere, told her mother shortly after she got her driver's license that she would be willing to donate her organs if worse ever came to worst.

Deanna came to that decision after a schoolmate died in a car crash a year earlier. Although her mind was aflutter, Catherine Casey clearly remembered that poignant mother-daughter chat. She did not hesitate.

"Out of all those calls that day, that one was the easiest decision I made," Casey recalled. Exactly 67 people were helped after receiving Deanna Casey's organ, tissue and bone donations.

"When I said yes, I did not really understand until years later how my daughter in death was going to touch so many lives," said Casey, who was selected by the donor group to take part in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. "Every time I think about that, it sends chills down my spine because it makes me feel so good."

Casey will be among scores of others aboard the "Donate Life" float. Her daughter's spirit will accompany her on the trip, as it does elsewhere every day.

"Deanna used to watch it," Casey said of the Rose Parade, the annual New Year's Day ritual she passed down from her own childhood. "Now Deanna and I will be in it. We are going to celebrate the gift of life."


RTI Donor Services, one of the more than 60 associations across the nation that include organ and tissue recovery organizations, industry partners, transplant centers and transplant recipient groups, is picking up the tab for Casey's trip.

It is one of the parade's 90 floats. Its theme this year is to honor donor families, living donors and transplant recipients. It also seeks to raise awareness about the need for donors.

An estimated 92 million Americans are registered as organ and tissue donors on state donor registries. But more are needed. According to Deanna Casey's donor group, more than 108,000 children and adults await lifesaving organ transplants in the United States. Hundreds of thousands more are in need of a tissue transplant to save or greatly enhance the quality of their lives.

Deanna Casey was a student at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights and held a night job at a local McDonald's.

She wrapped up her evening shift Oct. 28, 2006. Two co-workers lacked rides home that night. Deanna, who worked to buy her own 1993 Chevrolet Beretta, was not about to drive off. She wasn't raised that way. She dropped off the workers and then took Interstate 494 home. She never made it.

She was killed in a chain-reaction crash caused by Anthony Klecker, then 29, an Iraq war combat veteran who registered twice the legal blood-alcohol limit after the accident.

As a veteran cop, Casey well understood the impact of such traumatic events. She also understood the plight of veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance-abuse problems.

But this happened to her kid, her flesh and blood. You think you are prepared for such a tragedy, whether you are a regular Joe, a cop, a medical examiner, even a funeral director. Not when it hits home like this.

Klecker, of Shoreview, got a year and a day, and many years of probation as well as the court-directed treatment Casey and others hoped he would get.

"We all want him to get help. Otherwise, he (likely) will go kill someone again," she told reporters after his sentencing. "I want him to have to go speak to high school students about drinking and driving. I want him to go to MADD meetings.''

But, according to Casey, Klecker subsequently violated terms of his release after two altercations with fellow patients at a VA treatment center in St. Cloud. He was locked up and then released; he rear-ended a car last summer. A hearing in Hennepin County is pending.


But this is not about Klecker. This is about Deanna. This kid endured one of the worst betrayals any child could suffer before her death. Two years earlier, at age 14, an uncle, then a decorated Minnesota state trooper, sexually molested her.

The trooper played all the self-interest cards. He retired and successfully filed for full medical disability as a result of job-related PTSD a year before his conviction. He also opted for a nonjury trial. Although he could have pleaded guilty, Casey said, the disgraced lawman forced Deanna to take the witness stand and testify for more than four hours about her victimization at the hands of a trusted relative.

But Deanna Casey, as her mother describes her, not only endured but also found a way to try to turn a negative into a positive. She planned to talk to high school kids about dealing with such abuse and hoped to inspire other sexual assault victims to come forward.

She planned to go to college, attend law school and become a family court judge in order to secure the interests of abused and neglected kids — until a drunken driver wiped out those aspirations.

But Catherine Casey chooses to embrace the light that was her daughter rather than the darkness that claimed her life. It is most appropriate that she will pay tribute to her late daughter in this most resplendent and colorful parade.

Deanna Casey's image will be among the numerous kites that will swirl above the float as it makes its way along the parade route. She did not have a favorite flower. But her favorite color was purple.

"There will be several areas of purple flowers on the float," said Larry Palmer, a spokesman for Phoenix Decorating Co., the Arizona-based firm contracted to construct the float. "Many of the sculpted kites above the float will have purple statice, dendrobium orchids, carnations and chrysanthemums."

Fits the bill come Jan. 1, when a mother pays homage — surrounded by such dazzling beauty — to a beloved child who in life and death touched so many.