In just days, the man who killed my father will be sentenced for taking his life.
My father died on the morning of Sept. 22, 2012. He was one of roughly 12,000 victims who perished last year in DUI-related accidents. The circumstances of his death are typical of the overall countless number of victims of drunk drivers.
My own story, however, is quite atypical. Before I tell you, I want to share what in legalese is called my "victim impact statement." To put it simply, this is my letter to the judge, letting the court know the loss I've suffered. I've deleted my birthdate. Nothing else.
Melvin Garfield Huyck was my father since [DATE REDACTED], the day on which I was born. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this reality until February 2012.
I was raised nearly my entire life without knowing that Melvin was my father. I was brought up believing that another man, who passed away in 2003, was my father. The reasons behind this circumstance are neither here nor there as far as this victim impact statement goes. What I will say is that I always had a sneaking suspicion that my identity -- the identity I was encouraged to accept as my own -- was not what it seemed.
In 2009, I set out to discover the truth about who I was. I began by seeking a copy of my long form birth certificate.
I was, however, informed that it had been sealed by a judge. It was mine -- something that I should have a birth right to view, and I was not allowed to see it without a court order. I then took an alternative route.
I obtained a sample of DNA from my mother's side and a sample from the sister of the man whom I had been led to believe was my father. I had the samples tested at a DNA lab. The DNA on my mother's side matched. The DNA on the other side did not.
I am a crime writer, and mysteries are what I do best. I had to solve this mystery on my own, for my personal well-being. Like everything that I do in life, I took on the task full force.
I enlisted the assistance of Colleen Fitzpatrick, a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and a DNA expert who identified remains from the Titanic disaster. Fitzpatrick took my DNA and entered it into multiple national databases.
Over the course of a year and a half, she managed to narrow my lineage down to three generations back. This outcome was good news, but then, there was no more similar DNA available in any database to which she had access in order to narrow the search down further. So there I was. I had spent much of my savings and invested hundreds, if not thousands of hours into the search for my true identity, and I had hit a brick wall. I had two choices. I could wait for additional DNA to be entered into the databases, something that could take years, or I could find an alternative method to explore in the meantime. I chose the latter.
I hired a private investigator, and he eventually gave me the name Melvin Huyck. The name was not unknown to me. I went to school with his children -- some had even babysat me -- and my mother was good friends with his wife.
I approached Melvin's daughter Kim and told her my story. She agreed to a DNA comparison. I had the samples overnighted to a lab and paid for a rush, 24-hour test. Those were the longest 24 hours of my life. I did not sleep a wink. When the test finally came back, the DNA was a match. Kim was my sister. Her father, Melvin Huyck, was my father and his other children -- Esther Pavolko, Steven Huyck, Marlon Huyck and Melissa Huyck -- were my siblings.
In February 2011, I met with Melvin, as my father, for the first time at a Perkin's restaurant in Ohio. It was one of about a dozen or so meetings to come until Sept. 22, 2012.
Finding my father gave me my identity -- something that I did not ever know if I would have. I came away from each meeting having learned more about him, myself and my ancestry. There were so many strange coincidences. We look very much alike. We both liked to wear cowboy boots, loved cats and Chihuahuas, shared a love of classic vehicles, and so the list went on.
The sense of self that I was gaining was immeasurable. I do not even know how to put it in words. My quest led me to myself, to my biological father and to a whole new reality.
Unfortunately, on Sept. 22, 2012, that world and my reality were forever shattered by Jacob Dudenhoefer.
On the day that Dudenhoefer chose to drink and drive, he took not only my father's life but a large part of my identity. He robbed me of the knowledge that my father would have passed on to me. He robbed me of ever hearing my father say the words "I love you." He robbed me of the opportunity to grow close to my father and to get to know him as only a father and son can know one another.
My father was laid to rest on Sept. 26, 2012. Do you know how bizarre and troubling it is to look in a coffin at your father--the man who you are supposed to hold dear in your heart--and not feel the emotions that you know that you should be feeling? At the time of my father's death, we were still working to establish a bond. We were still getting to know each other. We found ourselves on a pleasant road together, and I was very much looking forward to the journey. My siblings were all devastated by his death, and I was left with a sense of guilt. I was left feeling guilty that I did not experience the same amount of pain because I was not given the opportunity for such emotions to have taken root yet. I was left feeling more empty than anything else, and the pain was very sharp.
It was not until December 25, 2012 that the full impact of my father's death hit me. Yes, on Christmas day. My sister had posted our father's photo on Facebook, and when I saw it, I felt as though I had been hit by a car. I had to get up and leave the room so that my family would not see me. I sobbed uncontrollably for perhaps an hour. I had to call my sister in order to speak with someone who could relate to the pain that I was feeling. And the worst part? I still don't know why I cried. Why did I break down? I can't tell you that. Trust me, I truly wish that I could, if not just for my own personal benefit. All that I can do at this point is wonder why. Maybe it was because Christmas is a day typically spent with family. Maybe it was because I realized that day that I had never spent a single Christmas with my father. Maybe it was because I realized that I never would in the future.
The judicial system calls Dudenhoefer's crimes "homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence" and "aggravated assault by vehicle." I call it murder. He chose to get behind the wheel drunk, just as any criminal chooses to point a loaded weapon at an innocent human being and to pull the trigger. To call it anything but murder is disrespectful to my father, my siblings, my family and myself.
People ask me, "what do you want?" Justice, sure I want that. Unfortunately, there is no justice in the state of Pennsylvania when it comes to DUI murders. Dudenhoefer will be free in less than 10 years -- probably in less than 5 -- and back on the road again. He will be free, while my father's physical body still lies six feet under. Justice? No, that's not justice. My justice would be a life for a life. Harsh? Not in the reality in which I now live. But that idea is fantasy--or better yet, wishful thinking, and we all know that it's not a possibility. Instead, I sit here filled with anger and rage that Dudenhoefer is still breathing and my father is not.
A part of me died on that highway in September 2012. A part of me I can never--irrespective of how much I wish I could--ever get back. I have been robbed of the stories of my father's childhood, of the bond that I would have had with my father and of the identity that I had finally begun to find. It's all gone, and I'll never get it back.
Your Honor, you cannot remove the pain from my heart, you cannot ease my mind when it is consumed by my father's death, you cannot give me back my father or my identity. All I ask of you is that justice be served and that you hold Dudenhoefer accountable for his selfish actions and give him the maximum sentence allowable.
I realize Dudenhoefer is only 23 years old. I know his defense and family will likely say that he deserves a second chance, "He is clean now," etc., all the typical whitewash these individuals always rely on. However, I ask that you to keep in mind that this was not his first offense and this guy wasn't a little bit tipsy -- his blood-alcohol level was obscene. He needs to be kept off the roads so he doesn't devastate another family. He deserves no leniency whatsoever. My father received none, so why should he? I also hope that you will read this letter and all of the other victim impact letters regarding this case aloud to Dudenhoefer at sentencing so that he can hear the full extent of the damage that he has done.
It took me nearly 40 years to find my father. Dudenhoefer took him away in about 40 seconds--the amount of time that it took him to hit my father's truck and kill him when it rolled over on top of him. Now, I get to spend the next 40 or so years--every day of the rest of my life--mourning the loss.
Looking back on everything, I cannot help but feel that my story is somewhat ironic. I have been a crime writer for nearly two decades. During that time, I have been asked on numerous occasions what the catalyst was that prompted my foray into the dark side of journalism.
I say 'dark side' because crime is a genre of journalism that can push the boundary of emotions and often forces a writer to question his or her own ethics. Needless to say, it can also leave writers with many a sleepless night.
Many of my colleagues in this profession were driven, whether by their own victimization or the victimization of a loved one, to become crime writers. In my case, there was no catalyst. My life was -- until September 2012 -- relatively untouched by crime.
My desire to write about crime initially centered on serial killers and a yearning to understand evil incarnate. What, I wanted to know, drives them to commit such unspeakable acts? That was the plan, but over time I came to realize their minds are far beyond the understanding of anyone whose brain is not similarly wired. In a more simplistic sense, if you're not evil at heart, you can't expect to wrap your head around evil.
So, instead of trying to understand the serial killer mindset, my focus shifted to cold cases and missing persons. I still covered other crimes, but cold cases and the missing became my bread and butter, my justification for making my living -- a type of salary that more than one critic has referred to as blood money. I became the voice of those who cannot speak. Understanding why someone would repeatedly kill without remorse was no longer as important as helping bring exposure -- and in some cases, closure -- to the family of a missing person.
That being said, it is ironic that, as an investigative journalist, I ended up using my skills to unravel the mystery of my own life -- the identity of my biological father.
That mystery was ultimately solved. It's something I am grateful for, as opposed to the torture of never having known the man. But in the end, my own life has been forever changed by the crime that took my father from me just a short time after I had found him. It was, and remains, bittersweet.
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The man who killed my father, repeat DWI offender Jacob Dudenhoefer, 23, had a blood alcohol level of .177 percent and was under the influence of drugs. It was against my own wishes that the District Attorney's Office in Erie, Pa., entered into a plea deal with Dudenhoefer in March. Per the terms, multiple charges were dropped and he pleaded guilty to charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, driving under the influence while under suspension, and driving under the influence, second offense.
Dudenhoefer will be sentenced for his crime on April 30, 2013. He faces a maximum penalty of 15 years and $36,000 in fines. However, given Pennsylvania's notorious tendency for leniency in DUI cases, he will likely serve less than five years.
UPDATE: On April 30, 2013, Jacob Dudenhoefer was sentenced to 4 1/2 to 10 years in prison. The sentence was just six months shy of the maximum allowed by law. Dudenhoefer was also ordered to pay court costs, $4,000 in fines and $9,772 in restitution.
During the sentencing hearing it was revealed that Dudenhoefer had pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges of possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, and in 2011 to a charge of DUI. In August 2012, a month before the crash that killed Melvin Huyck, he twice pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended driver's license.
You owe it to Huyck to "do whatever good you can do with whatever time you have left on earth in honor of [his] memory," Judge Shad Connelly said.