WAUKESHA – After a lengthy trial, those whose lives were shattered by Darrell Brooks Jr.’s attack on the city’s holiday parade were able to tell their stories as part of his two-day sentencing hearing. However, impact statements were abruptly cut short and the courtroom was cleared Tuesday morning when an anonymous threat toward the courthouse was called into the Waukesha County Communication Center.
Brooks, 40, of Milwaukee was convicted Oct. 26 of killing six people and injuring dozens of others by driving through the 2021 Christmas parade. Those who lost loved ones and suffered injuries in the attack read impact statements on day one of Brooks’ sentencing hearing. About 40 victims will offer statements before Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow sentences Brooks on Wednesday.
Brooks, again wearing the surgical mask he donned for most of his weekslong trial, showed muted emotion as the statements were presented. At times he chuckled, bowed his head, or read a Bible that he brought to court.
8-year-old Jackson Sparks was ‘violently ripped from their lives,’ his mother says
Sheri Sparks went to the Waukesha Christmas Parade to watch her sons, Tucker and Jackson Sparks, march with their baseball team. Brooks’ SUV hit both of her sons, and Jackson lost his life after suffering a traumatic brain injury.
“Do you have any idea how gut wrenching it is to explain to your 12-year-old son that his little brother isn’t going to make it?” Sparks said in her impact statement. Jackson was “violently ripped from their lives,” she added.
Her surviving son still suffers from survivors’ guilt, PTSD, anxiety and headaches from his head injury, she said.
“Being the protective big brother, he blames himself,” Sparks said.
Statements cut short after mass shooting threat
A handful of victims were able to share their statements before the courtroom was cleared late Tuesday morning due to a mass shooting threat directed toward the courthouse, according to Waukesha County deputies. Shortly thereafter, deputies stood guard at the windows in the courtroom.
After about an hour, authorities deemed the courthouse safe enough for statements to continue but increased security.
“The sheriff has assured me that this building is quite safe,” Dorow said.
An investigation into the threat is underway.
The parade attack has left long-lasting impacts, victims say
Most impact statements revealed that victims’ healing journeys are far from over, as they struggle with recurring nightmares, flashbacks and lasting injuries.
“After almost one year, some days still feel like Nov. 21 (2021) was yesterday,” said Jessica Gonzalez, whose son marched in the parade with his baseball team.
She was able to locate her son among the wreckage, but her family is still recovering from the tragedy. “That should be the end of the story, right? We’re fine, right?” Gonzalez said. “We’re not.”
Sasha Catalan-Castillo was struck by the SUV as she walked with the Waukesha South High School marching band. The way she displays emotion has changed, she said. Especially now, as the holiday season approaches, sometimes she is afraid to leave her house.
“I still struggle to this day,” Catalan-Castillo said. “I keep moving forward, but I don’t know when the nightmares will go away.”
Waukesha South band member victim thanks Judge Dorow
Brooks’ vehicle struck Tyler Pudleiner as the high school student played in the Waukesha South marching band. He suffered from injuries that hospitalized him for six days.
Sometimes, he admitted in his statement, he felt angry that Dorow could not do more to silence Brooks’ interruptions during the trial, which often derailed or delayed the proceedings. He apologized and took the time to directly thank her for her “decorum and utmost respect” throughout the trial.
“You’ve truly become like a mother and a true hero this community, and for that, we appreciate you, Judge Dorow,” he said.
More:‘You’re a freakin’ saint’: Fan mail poured in for Judge Dorow during Waukesha parade trial
Brooks rolled his eyes a couple times as Pudleiner read his statement.
Brooks is facing a minimum of six life sentences and up to hundreds of additional years behind bars for his crimes. Dorow is scheduled to hand down the sentence 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Owen family members speak of memories and nightmares
Chris Owen, one of Leanna Owen’s grandsons, spoke about quaint memories that have now have turned to pain as a result of her death.
“All of that has been ripped away,” Owen said. “Now my dad has nightmares of her body flying.”
“But Darrell Brooks conscience is clear. And I believe him. That’s the one truth he told,” he said, his voice building in anger as he recalled seeing Brooks smile as he looked back out of the window of his SUV. “I saw pure unrepentant evil from you that day.”
Matt Owen, another grandson, also spoke in abject anger. “This will never be over until the day I’m pissing on your grave,” he said.
Durand’s brother criticizes Brooks’ cartoonish defense
Michael Carlson, the brother of fatality victim Tamara Durand, focused on both Brooks’ actions and his courtroom sovereign citizen strategy, in which he repeatedly refused to identify by his own name and challenged the court’s jurisdiction over him.
“Mr. Brooks, I want you to take no comfort here in this cartoon world you have created,” Carlson said.
At the conclusion of Carlson’s comments, Brooks tried to object, challenging whether Dorow was biased for having worked with Carlson’s father in the past, a point raised earlier in the trial and dismissed. It resulted in an argument with Dorow and Brooks’ temporary removal from the courtroom.
“It is a blatant attempt to be disruptive,” Dorow said, suggesting Brooks was trying to shift the focus away from victim’s statements. “This is a very emotional day for everyone.”
Family of Ginny Sorenson expresses their pain
Marshall Sorenson, who identified himself as the son to “murdered mother” Virginia Sorenson, recalled being told about how his mother died at the parade and how he has struggled to live with that fact.
“My daughters were cheated out of it because of the acts (of Brooks). My family will never get the chance to hug my mother one last time because of your actions, Mr. Brooks,” Sorenson said, asking the judge to affirm the mandatory life sentences.
He also cheered Dorow. “When I was a kid, many of my heroes wore capes. This one wore a robe,” he said.
One of Marshall’s daughters, Brooke, also spoke, saying she missed the commentary of her grandmother as Brooke ran foot races with siblings. “When we first found out she was gone, I started to cry and I continue to cry every night,” she said.
Sean Sorenson, Virginia’s oldest son, said his mother, who worked as a medical records nurse, “never let anything slow her down” until Brooks caused her death.
“Just saying that name brings anger and hatred,” he said of Brooks, adding, “He is simply a repulsive man who has shown no remorse for his actions.”
Sean Sorenson also criticized Brooks’ mother, Dawn Woods, for bailing him out of jail in Milwaukee on an assault charge involving his ex-girlfriend, and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, for his office’s role in Brooks’ release last November.
Dave Sorenson, her husband, thanked court officials, but also J.J. Watt, the Waukesha-area native who assisted the family financially following the parade incident. “Angels will watch over all of us and give us strength,” he said.
“When it snows like it did this morning, I imagine it as a blanket” of love from his wife, Dave Sorenson said.
Kulich family addresses grief
Taylor Kulich, oldest daughter of fatality victim Jane Kulich, recalled how her “heart sank” when she learned her mother had died in the hospital.
Breaking down in tears as she talked about family photos that were shown, Taylor said she “wept for our family” at the loss of a family member who everyone couldn’t help but love. Ginny had a unique bond with each of her grandchildren, she added.
“My smile is not as bright (now),” she said. “I can’t wait to hear about the day when you are dead in prison.”
Alisha Kulich, Virginia’s youngest daughter, said she “had many emotions on the subject, but my biggest emotion is grief.”
“I was 17 years old at the time (of the incident), and just started my senior year. … I can tell you every last detail of that day,” Alisha recalled, as she realized what had happened and how drastic the situation was as the family drove to the hospital and saw other victims.
“Often times, when I hear sirens, I’m scared, scared that another family is going through what I went through,” Alisha said through her tears.
“I remember you asking the jury to do what is right, when you could have done that yourself by just stopping,” she added.
This story will be updated throughout the day.
Quinn Clark can be emailed at QClark@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Quinn_A_Clark.