MERIDEN — Michele Palmieri broke down in tears when she first laid eyes on the man accused of driving the sport utility vehicle that killed her 5-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew in a horrific crash.
Palmieri is the aunt of Michael Cruz, who was driving the family’s Suburu early Sunday morning with his wife, Gina Schroder, and their children when the car was rear-ended at high speed at a stop light on Broad Street. Tatiana Cruz, 5, and Lorenzo Cruz, 8, were killed on impact. Cruz’ stepson, Alejandro Schroder, 12, remained in intensive care Monday.
Members of the Cruz and Schroder families came to Superior Court on Monday to seek justice for the children and to see Israel Gonzalez, 29, the man accused of causing the crash and fleeing the scene. He faces felony charges of evading responsibility, as well as reckless driving and driving without license. Police say speed and alcohol were factors in the crash and they expect to file more serious charges.
It was an emotional day for the families as they tried to make sense of the deaths and support the survivors.
Gina Schroder’s brother, David Valentin, missed Gonzalez’ arraignment after getting stuck in traffic. He said he’s probably lucky.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” Valentin said. “To take someone so young and so innocent ... He’s a grown man. You know the minute getting behind the wheel what you were doing, being intoxicated like that and then taking off afterwards. You didn’t need to take off. Own up to your mistakes.”
According to Valentin, Michael Cruz and Gina Schroder were returning from Walmart in Wallingford after buying groceries when they stopped for a red light at the intersection of Broad Street and Gale Avenue. According to police and witnesses, Gonzalez’ truck slammed into their Subaru, sending it careening 100 feet across the road into a pole.
Gonzalez reportedly fled the scene but was found later in a nearby home and taken to the hospital where he was tested for alcohol impairment and arrested on felony evading charges. More serious charges are expected this week, police said, and investigators are seeking a warrant to obtain test results showing Gonzalez’ blood alchohol level.
Valentin said Gina Schroder told him Tatiana had been singing in the car prior to the impact. After the car was hit, Schroder called out to her children. Alejandro replied faintly but there was no sound from Tatiana and Lorenzo.
“She knew the two other ones were already gone because they didn’t answer,” Valentin said. “My sister is having a hard time.”
The family had recently moved from Middletown to an apartment at 72 E. Main St. Tatiana attended kindergarten and Lorenzo attended third grade at Israel Putnam School.
“I just talked to them on Halloween,” he said with tears in his eyes. “We’re living without two little angels and we’re kind of wondering why.”
Alejandro, 12, was in the back seat on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Tatiana was sitting in a booster seat in the back on the passenger side. Lorenzo was buckled in between them.
Alejandro suffered a laceration on his liver and internal injuries. Gina Schroder suffered internal bleeding, a broken arm, broken ribs and has undergone two surgeries. Michael Cruz had a concussion and stitches on his neck and back, Valentin said. Cruz has been discharged but he is staying at Hartford Hospital with the children’s mother.
“He’s going through it because he was the driver,” Valentin said. “He’s kind of blaming himself right now. It’s not his fault.”
Schroder also has an older son, Agosto Schroder, who spoke with the children 20 minutes before the accident while they were at Walmart. Agosto lives with his mother, stepfather and siblings but is also spending his time at the hospital.
Valentin’s fiancee, Maribel Santiago, described Tatiana and Lorenzo as fun-loving, active kids.
“They were happy kids,” Santiago said. “They were always smiling. Lorenzo loved the Incredible Hulk. Tatiana was always following him. They were always jumping and happy. They were looking forward to life.”
After Monday’s arraignment, the family visited the site of the accident where a memorial of balloons, candles and stuffed animals grew by the hour. Motorists called out best wishes as they drove by and a well-wisher chatted with Valentin for several minutes after dropping off two teddy bears and a candle.
“Thank you, man,” Valentin said. “It’s hard. I might even need help after this.”
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized, but the family may have an offer from a funeral home to help with the children’s burials. Family members have been arriving from out of state.
“We want to thank the community for its support,” Valentin said with tears in his eyes. “We need all the support we can get. It’s hard. It hurts a lot.”