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Judge orders prison for hit-and-run death

Woman fled scene after hitting girl

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Dec. 5, 2007, 10:14 a.m.)

Turning her Ford Explorer into the parking lot of her brother's apartment complex last Memorial Day, Teresa Varela-Merino struck and killed a 6-year-old girl who was riding her bike.

Instead of waiting at the scene for police, she ran into her brother's nearby apartment, scared she might be a victim of mob justice, her attorney said.

Those steps got Varela-Merino, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant who was living in Lake Geneva illegally, charged with hit-and-run resulting in death.

Judge John Race sentenced her last week Thursday to 18 months in prison. She'll serve about a year because she's been in jail since the incident. She will be deported after her release.

Through tears, Varela-Merino, whose children ages 8 and 12 are still in Mexico, read a letter to the parents of Lexan Duran Ortiz.

"I ask for forgiveness for what happened to your daughter," she said through an interpreter. "I hope you know that everything was an accident. I know that asking for forgiveness is not sufficient for the pain I caused on that day. You don't know how sorry I am because of that accident."

Varela-Merino didn't flee the scene in her car, defense attorney Jeff Krebs said. She went inside her brother's apartment, afraid for her own safety because of the neighbors yelling and shouting at her, he said.

"Where (she's) from, it's not unusual for people to take the law into their own hands," Krebs said.

Her boyfriend and brother both were outside the apartment. She sat inside and waited until police called her name. When they talked, Varela-Merino was cooperative, truthful and never denied the incident, Krebs said.

Prison will not bring the child back, nor will it rehabilitate someone whose crime was running a few yards away, Krebs said.

"She will grieve her entire life, every single day, for what happened on that tragic day," he said.

But running means she didn't immediately own up to what happened, District Attorney Phil Koss said. Had Varela-Merino not run inside or had she come out when police arrived, Koss didn't know if he even could have prosecuted her except for driving without a valid license.

There was a phone inside the apartment, yet Varela-Merino didn't call for help, Koss said.

"She didn't take responsibility when she needed to," said Koss, who recommended a prison sentence. "She could have just stood up and said, 'It's me.'"

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