At 1:31 a.m., Feb. 1, 2009, life went on hold for the family and friends of April Whang.
That’s when April was driving her 2004 Integra through a green light at an intersection in La Habra, about a mile from her family home in Fullerton. A second vehicle, a 2003 Mazda 6 traveling an estimated 90 mph ran a red light and slammed into April’s car.
The impact pushed April, 26, from the driver’s seat into the car’s cargo area. She died at the scene.
When La Habra police got to the intersection, they found the driver of the Mazda, Brittany Deanne Schuetz, sitting in the driver’s seat.
Police report that she had bloodshot eyes and a strong odor of alcohol on her breath, and she was unable to answer basic questions.
Tests taken later determined that Schuetz, then 20, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.24 five times the legal limit for someone under 21. Schuetz previously was convicted of drunken driving in 2007.
Though the details are sadly routine for a lethal drunken driving incident, the crash and its aftermath remain a source of ongoing pain for those who knew and loved April.
For example: April’s boyfriend, Thomas Sleigh, 25, remembers watching an episode of “Saturday Night Live” with April just before the crash. They were at his house, in Whittier, and they both fell asleep on the couch.
When April woke, about 1 a.m., she said she had to go home.
“I was able to tell her ‘I love you,'” says Sleigh, who was planning to ask April to marry him.
“I had her roll down her window and kissed her one more time.” April told him she would call when she got home. Instead, he got a call from April’s younger sister, Kimberly Whang, 22.
“She was sobbing so much,” Sleigh says.
For Kimberly’s part, the accident and April’s death remain difficult to digest more than a year later.
“It’s easier,” Kimberly says, “to think it’s not real.”
In the moments when April’s life was ending, her mother, Kyung Whang, was calling April’s cell phone, trying to find out when her daughter would come home.
Kyung, 55, got no answer, and fell asleep on the couch. Sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. she woke to the sound of loud knocking on the front door. It was a deputy coroner, who began asking questions about April. Soon, he handed April’s driver’s license to Kyung, and uttered the words “April is dead.”
“I was destroyed,” Kyung says. “I had her driver’s license in my hand for a couple of hours.”
Kimberly went numb at that moment. Her father, Brian Whang, became hysterical.
“He was the last person to see my sister,” Kimberly explains. “She cooked dinner for him… She made pot stickers.”
In the year since her death, April’s bedroom has been left mostly untouched. Her clothes black T-shirts and jeans to fit a style Kimberly describes as “tomboy” still hang in the closet. The black velvet blazer April wore the night of the crash hangs from the back of a desk chair. Her makeup bag is on a desk. Fresh roses; teddy bears; pictures of April with Thomas and other friends all still can be found in April’s room.
The one visible sign of death is this:
April’s ashes in a sand-colored ceramic urn rest near a nightstand. The urn is embellished with April’s gold locket and a diamond necklace.
“Sometimes I hear her voice,” Kyung says.
“When I leave home, I always tell her I’ll be back. When we are out, I always think she is home alone.”
Kimberly, looking around April’s room, notes that it’s become the first place her father comes to when he comes home.
For Kimberly, a poignant reminder that April was gone came May 25, 2009. It was Kimberly’s birthday. A year earlier, when she turned 21, April had thrown a surprise party for Kimberly.
Kimberly says last year’s birthday was different.
“I came up here and slept in her bed.”
April’s friends nicknamed her “Tofu,” because she was pale and her demeanor was soft.
She loved to play ice hockey and was a huge Ducks fan. She’d developed a passion for ice sports when she was young, and had given up figure skating only because she grew too quickly. Kimberly followed April into the sport, and devoted 11 years to figure skating.
April had worked at The Rinks Anaheim Ice since she was a senior at Sunny Hills High School, and had fitted custom boots for figure skaters and professional hockey players. Kimberly and April often skated at The Rinks, but Kimberly says she hasn’t been to the rink since April’s death.
April’s boyfriend, Thomas Sleigh, says he’d planned to propose to her on ice.
“The idea was to rent the rink late at night, blind fold her and ask her to marry me.”
He had a ring picked out, though he was still saving up to buy it when April died.
“She found out I had a ring fund. She was super, super excited to know I was saving money for her.
“She was the girl I was supposed to marry.”
About 4 p.m., Feb. 16, those closest to April Kimberly and Thomas, Kyung and Brian started to sob.
They were in court, and Brittany Schuetz was being pronounced guilty of one count of murder.
They hope they can move forward now that Schuetz is heading for prison. They hope people will really stop and think before drinking and driving.
“I was thinking about April,” Kyung says. “When Brittany was handcuffed and was saying sorry to her family, I had mixed feelings. I felt sorry for her mother and her family.”
They will be back in court on April 30 for the sentencing. Kimberly has one more hope.
“Once this is over, we never want to think about Brittany Schuetz again.”
For more information regarding this article please contact: