KALAMAZOO, Mich. — When Madeline Bradley began riding her bike at 8 years old, her mother Debra made sure that her helmet was on tight she said. Madeline rode with her brother as Debra taught them the importance of obeying the rules of the road.
"I was too young to realize it at the time but her selflessness was something that she would exhibit throughout my entire life,” Bradley said to the packed courtroom. “She always protected me from the things that I never saw coming. But no one could have protected me from this.”
Bradley said her mother was killed in a bike crash on June 7, 2016, weeks after she graduated from high school. According to police reports, Charles Pickett Jr. slammed into the Chain Gang cycling group that night on Westnedge Avenue, killing Melissa Fevig Hughes, Tony Nelson, Larry Paulik, Suzanne Sippel and Debra Bradley instantly.
“My mother's story does not end in tragedy,” Bradley said. “Her story lives on inside me. I can feel it. I can feel it in my bones, in the tears that roll down my cheeks, in every breath.”
Pickett cried during her victim-impact statement. He’s been convicted of five counts of second-degree murder. Monday morning was his sentencing.
“Debbie had a wonderful life, as did Larry, Suzanne, Tony and Melissa,” said Debra’s sister Catherine Maino. “Each of them, their own story in history. As tragic as this whole thing is, I pray that we keep their names and their lives in the forefront of our minds always.”
Dozens of the victims' families and loved ones filled the pews in the courtroom. Four other cyclists -- Sheila Jeske, Paul Runnels, Paul Gobble and Jennifer Johnson -- survived the crash that night. All testified during trial saying that they spent many months recovering in the hospital, going through rounds of surgery and physical and emotional therapy.
“Some things will never be possible again due to physical limitations,” said Johnson during her statement. “Other activities are possible but much more difficult. I am riding again but only with a group, while finding myself holding my breath when vehicles pass.”
Johnson said throughout trial last month she watched Pickett closely and noticed he was “stoic.” She questioned why he wasn’t remorseful and asked that he spend his time behind bars doing something meaningful. When Judge Paul J. Bridenstine asked if he’d like to address the court before being sentenced, Pickett stood up, faced the crowd and said "I'm very sorry."
“There’s nothing I can do to take it back,” said Pickett while crying. “I’ll live with this for the rest of my life. I would give my life for the people that I murdered and killed, maimed and everything else.”
Bridenstine said that Pickett’s apology was inadequate. He then sentenced him to at least 35 years in prison for the five counts of murder. Once it was over, the families and loved ones hugged each other in the courtroom and hallway.
“As far as I’m concerned this’ll be the last time I have to come to the courthouse and last time I have to deal with anything to do with Pickett,” said survivor Paul Gobbles. “And instead be able to focus on riding for the love of it, being with our friends and family. So I feel great.”