Family of beloved pastor killed by drunken driver forgives and hugs him at sentencing
Pastor Verlyn Strenge's last sermon was about forgiveness.
BAGELY, Minn. — Fifty-eight-year-old David Nelson knew when he walked into the Clearwater County Courthouse Wednesday, Nov. 24, he would be going to prison.
However, nobody saw what was going to happen to next.
Judge Eric Schieferdecker said it was something he had never seen before.
County Attorney Katy Lorsbach was in tears.
It was a message that caught the courtroom by surprise, starting with the congregation at First Baptist Church in Clearbrook where Verlyn Strenge had been the pastor and pillar in the community for 25 years.
"We have been forgiven so much, how could we not forgive you," said church member Rick Moore.
Strenge's daughter Jayme Nelson provided a very similar message.
"We forgive you, Mr. Nelson. As hard as it was at first, we want you to know that we have been praying for you for the past year, because we know your life has been impacted by the biggest mistake of your life," she said.
The 69-year-old Strenge was killed last year when his Jeep Cherokee was rear-ended by Nelson's out-of-control pickup at the intersection of Highways 2 and 92 in downtown Bagley.
Strenge's 66-year-old wife was seriously hurt.
Troopers say the mid-morning crash happened because Nelson, who is from Nelson, Minnesota, was going nearly 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. His BAC was 0.267 after a morning of mixed drinks while hunting.
A local fire chief was following Nelson's pickup after calling 911 to say it was running cars off Highway 92.
"By the time he reached Bagley, he was unstoppable. And in the final moments before he struck the vehicle, his foot was jammed onto the accelerator. The black box in the vehicle showed from the time he entered the intersection to the time his truck was disabled he never took his foot off the gas," said prosecutor Lorsbach.
In hopes of a lighter sentence, Nelson's lawyer pointed out his client had never been in a courtroom. To put the day into "context," he pointed out it marked the 2-year anniversary of Nelson's wife's death.
"My client does not want that to be an excuse; it tarnishes the memory of his wife," said Nelson's lawyer, Christopher Karpan.
The judge ordered Nelson to spend almost three years in state prison for vehicular homicide.
"I very much appreciate the forgiveness aspect of what they brought up. I decided today I was not going to ask for it," said Nelson, who also apologized.
After the hearing, there was a series of emotional moments as Verlyn's widow, daughter and son all walked up to Nelson to hug him and say to him face-to-face that they forgive him and will be praying for him and his family, and that he needs to forgive himself.