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Women of Distinction

Gang member who rammed SUV, killed teen gets 54 years

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012 11:00 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Belinda Garcia woke up moments after the crash, hanging from her seat belt with her ribs broken, left arm shattered and bleeding from cuts all over her body.

"I just couldn't believe what was happening," Garcia, 21, wrote about that night in August 2009. "I would ask God: 'Why me? Why me? I'm not a bad person. I like to do good,' and I would not get an answer back."

One by one, the victims' statements were read aloud Wednesday by prosecutors in a Cook County courtroom. They recounted a litany of broken bones, shattered lives and emotional ruin — all inflicted by Shalimar Santiago, a reputed gang member who rammed a vehicle full of teens on Chicago's West Side because he mistakenly believed they were rivals.

But the seven victims' pain paled in comparison, they said, to the loss of their friend Stephanie Herrera, 18, a college student and aspiring doctor who was killed in the wreck.

After hearing the emotional accounts, Judge Joseph Claps sentenced Santiago to 54 years in prison, 11 years less than the maximum possible punishment. A jury had convicted him last month of first-degree murder and seven counts of aggravated battery.

During the sentencing, Santiago, 30, apologized to the victims, though he insisted it was all a tragic accident and he was not the monster portrayed by prosecutors.

"I cannot bring her back, but I apologize," he declared in a gruff voice as Herrera's mother and father held each other in the courtroom's front row.

Herrera and seven friends from the west suburbs were driving in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, trying to find their way to the expressway, when Santiago mistook them for rivals who had shot his friend hours earlier, according to testimony at the trial. Santiago chased them through the streets in a van and intentionally rammed their SUV several times, causing it to crash into a utility pole and flip, prosecutors said.

Herrera's father, Pedro, described his daughter as a passionate activist who believed in service to the community and had launched a nonprofit organization to register voters in her neighborhood. The straight-A student from Melrose Park was about to begin her sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, intent on becoming a pediatrician.

Herrera's death caused her parents to sink deep into depression. Jocelyn Herrera, Stephanie's younger sister, wrote that she was forced to take over responsibilities from her mother and has watched her family tear apart. "I could not do anything about it," she wrote.

The pain endures as well for some of the survivors of the crash. Joe Penkala was in a coma for almost a month after the crash and wrote that he has "scars that will never go away."

"I wake up in the morning, and it's the first thing I see in the mirror or the first thing I think about as I rise to my feet and I drag my right foot," wrote Penkala, who suffered severe injuries to the foot and leg and walks with a bit of a limp.

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