Saturday, February 9, 2008

Year's wait for justice adds to pain

Year's wait for justice adds to pain
Tioga Co. woman's family hopes driver of fatal runaway trailer will be found.

JACKSON TOWNSHIP -- It has been a year, and the days still come hard.

Things are likely to stay that way until police find and charge the person whose negligence killed Rhonda Fromm and whose lack of accountability enraged her family and confounded law enforcement officers.

One year ago today, a runaway trailer crossed Route 287 at Hammond Lake and smashed into a 1997 Dodge Intrepid driven by Rhonda, killing her instantly. Husband Mike Fromm, in the front passenger seat, escaped serious injury.

To make matters so much worse, the trailer turned out to be stolen. The driver of the pickup truck that had been towing it took off, leaving Rhonda dead in the road and her children, Leon, now 15, Karissa, 13, and Brooke, 8; Mike; and her parents, David and Eloise Stewart, to grieve in agony.

"I think this amounts to murder," said Leon, a sophomore at Williamson High School in Tioga Junction. "Most people would call it manslaughter, because it was a quote, accident, unquote. But to me it's murder. When he drove away, it was no longer an accident.

"This guy is not just a thief, he's a murderer," Leon said. "He needs to be put away and put into an institution where he can be educated. He needs to be taught respect for other human beings. He's cold and thoughtless. He isn't even thinking about the family of the woman he killed.

"Bitter?" Leon asked. "Yes, I'm bitter, Shouldn't I be? Someone killed my mother, and he won't admit it and police can't find him."

Mike Fromm worked the midnight shift at Ward-ACP just a few yards from the Somers Lane Mobile Home Park, where they lived. He and Rhonda had driven to Wellsboro to pay real estate taxes.

Mike, a little drowsy from his work shift, wasn't paying close attention to the traffic on Route 287. It was a Friday, and they talked about the weekend. Going to Corning. Chinese food. Relaxing.

Then a southbound pickup truck approached, towing a heavy, homemade, dual-axle trailer. No safety chains attached the trailer to the truck, and one mile north of Ives Run, on a straight stretch of road, truck and trailer separated.

Mike just remembers a dark shape coming at them, and thinking that maybe the car would just demolish the trailer and keep on going. It didn't.

The trailer hit the Intrepid near the left front tire, utterly destroyed the driver's side of the vehicle and flipped it onto its roof.

Mike started screaming Rhonda's name, looked at her and knew immediately that she was dead.

Now, he raises her children, by a previous marriage, and wonders what will come next.

What came next for Leon was a YouTube page (\itchirosakamori), that includes still pictures of Rhonda and video from his computer.

"It has had a lot of views," Leon said. "A lot of condolences. But no tips or anything like that."

Karissa goes to school. She twirls the baton for the Laurelettes. And misses her mother.

"I think about her every day," she said. "I think about the fun things we did together. How much I loved her. And how much I miss her."

Brooke is the shy one. She doesn't say much, especially to strangers. But there's pain in her eyes, too.

Police continue to follow leads. But so far, nothing has turned up the driver. Rhonda's father said police told him they had found the man who stole the trailer from Stage's Equipment, near Tioga, about two weeks before the crash.

But the investigation showed that he was in a downstate jail on the day of the accident, so he could not have caused it. He told police that he had stashed the trailer behind a Tioga-area storage business. He has not been charged with any crimes related to the alleged theft.

"The police have dismissed him as a suspect at this point," David Stewart said. "Apparently somebody picked that trailer up at the storage place and moved it on the day of the accident. That's what the police have told me.

"It has been frustrating," he said. "But I know they can't do miracles."

A year after the crash, the family clearly wants results. Leon believes that the people involved may be methamphetamine users. Rhonda's mother just wants it to end.

"They have followed every lead they can," Eloise Stewart said. "And it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. We have called everybody -- the senator, the governor -- to try to get this solved. We need to know who did this. We need to know what happened. We need to have some closure."

George W. Wheeler, who will take over as Tioga County's district attorney in January, would like that, too. Every work day, he drives by the crash scene twice.

"The investigation is still active," he said. "And it will remain active as we continue to seek the person who did this. We are continuing to seek any information from the public that we can get, whether the person providing it thinks it's important or not. We are looking for any leads we can get.

"Somebody knows something," he said. "It's our goal to find that person."

The family's goal is to be at peace. That may be difficult to achieve as long as the person who killed Rhonda Fromm remains free.

Mike Fromm and Rhonda's children moved this week from the mobile home court to a big new house four miles away in Jackson Township, around the corner from the Stewarts, from where Rhonda grew up. They each have their own bedroom, and the forest for a neighbor.

And they will go on, day to day, still wondering and waiting.

"Some days are really, really hard," Eloise said. "I think about her every day. I just hope there's justice. I really hope that."