Two years after son's death, family searches for closure

Zachary Mingee should have been opening birthday presents Saturday. He should have been asking his folks where to go to register to vote. He should have been mailing off college applications, getting ready to go to the homecoming dance.

But the Buckley youth was killed two years ago, a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday, by a drunken driver who is believed to be hiding in Mexico.

Locating that man and holding him accountable for his actions are foremost in the minds of his parents, John and Brenda Mingee, and sisters Amber, 19, and Kelsey, 14.

"Grief could consume you if you let it. Life goes on, and we have to live for our daughters and ourselves," Brenda Mingee said.

They're painfully aware of the obvious. Prosecution of the accused will not bring their son back.

"But it will give closure and it will serve justice if he can be found," said Brenda, who merely wants the cooperation of authorities and understanding from the public.

Looking forward to 16

On Sept. 11, 2004, Zachary Mingee and his Christ Lutheran High School classmate and friend Dustin Luhrsen had wrapped up a day of baling hay for Dustin's dad.

Zachary was saving every penny he could, planning to buy a full-sized pickup truck when he turned 16 on Oct. 7.

Shortly after 5 p.m., they were on their way home, Dustin at the wheel of the 1962 Ford 6000 tractor on which they'd been working. Zachary shared the seat with his friend, an experienced tractor operator.

The teens waved at familiar faces as they slowly chugged north on U.S. 45 through town.

"They were in road gear, about 19 to 20 mph, on the shoulder as much as they could be," Brenda said.

Barreling along behind them doing about 65 mph in a 35 mph zone was Fernando Nunez, now 22, who lived in the Fountain Valley Mobile Home Park in Rantoul.

Nunez's car ran into the rear of the tractor near the intersection with Blane Street with such force that it knocked one of the tractor wheels off. Both boys went flying.

"Dustin ended up with stitches in his elbow and hurt his ankle," John said.

Zachary sustained such grave head and chest injuries that he likely was dead at the scene. Paramedics tried to revive him all the way to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, where he was pronounced dead.

"No one saw the collision, but people came up after," Brenda said. "We have been told by someone at the scene that Nunez came over to the tractor after the accident and looked at Zachary and then ran. He did see the consequence of his driving."

Bad news travels faster

As paramedics worked on Zachary, word spread through the tightly knit, mostly Lutheran community of 600 that something awful had happened.

"We had just come home from Amber's volleyball game," Brenda said. "Our pastor is an emergency medical technician on the fire department, Mark Haller. He came and got us. He sent us to the hospital and came with us."

While the Mingees were in Urbana absorbing the disbelief that their son had died, authorities around Buckley were looking for Nunez.

About two hours after the wreck, police found him hiding in a cornfield. He had no apparent injuries.

As Nunez was processed at the county jail in Watseka, more than 100 youngsters and their parents gathered at Christ Lutheran High to comfort each other and to pray.

Iroquois County State's Attorney Jim Devine said a blood test done on Nunez about 10 p.m. showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.038 percent. Using a formula to determine what it would have been at the time of the crash, Devine estimated it to have been greater than 0.08 percent, the level at which a driver is presumed intoxicated under Illinois law.

Subsequent tests revealed Nunez also had cocaine and cannabis in his system.

On the Monday after the Saturday crash, Devine drafted a charge of reckless homicide against Nunez. He appeared before Iroquois County Judge Gordon Lustfeldt, who set his bond at $50,000 for the Class 2 felony, which carries penalties up to 14 years in prison upon conviction. The bond was increased to $60,000 later.

As Zachary was formally mourned on the Wednesday and Thursday after his death, Nunez remained in the Iroquois County jail. The surviving Mingees got a broader view of just how many lives that Zachary, an aspiring minister, had touched.

"There were 1,100 people at the visitation. From 3 to 10 p.m. we never sat down," Brenda and John said almost in unison.

Almost four weeks after Zachary's burial, on Oct. 12, 2004, Nunez posted $6,000 cash and was released. Two days later, a grand jury indicted him for reckless homicide.

The indictment alleged that Nunez was under the influence of alcohol to a degree that rendered him incapable of safe driving and that he drove in a reckless manner, causing the death.

Nunez was supposed to have appeared to be arraigned on the indictment Oct. 19, 2004. He did not, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Justice delayed

Because Illinois State Police had developed information that Nunez was an illegal alien, FBI resources also were employed to try to find him.

Marshall Stone, an FBI spokesman, confirmed that the agency is helping look for Nunez but declined to be expansive to questions put to him in writing regarding the investigation or where they believe Nunez is.

However, an FBI agent has been in regular contact with the Mingees for two years. From information he provided, the Mingees believe Nunez's brother and sister, who were living with him in Rantoul, raised the cash to win his release.

They also believe he was last seen in the United States in January 2005 and after that moved in with his mother in Mexico.

"We also know through people who lived in Onarga that he would go out (in Mexico) in a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. He knew he was being watched," Brenda said.

"He has Nunez tattooed on the back of his neck," John said.

Every time someone in the U.S. applies for a job using Nunez's birth date or name, it generates a hit for the FBI to check out, Brenda said. There have been several.

Should he return to the U.S., the chances of him being caught and returned to Iroquois County are much better than if he remains in Mexico.

The Mingees are somewhat frustrated with Devine, their state's attorney, for not being more aggressive about the extradition.

"I've been one to trust the system and let the system do what it's designed to do," John said, adding, "To be fair to Jim, he thought there was very little chance."

Devine said it's his understanding, from talking to Department of Justice attorneys, that it's unlikely Mexico will cooperate in returning Nunez to the U.S.

"Generally, if it's not an intentional crime of violence, the Mexican government has traditionally not extradited. That is what I'm stuck with. If I could change it, I would," Devine said, acknowledging the Mingees' frustration.

Additionally, he said he's been working since the middle of 2005 to prepare the necessary extradition documents that the U.S and Mexican governments require.

"It's a lengthy process. It requires several affidavits from police agencies involved in the arrest and investigation, not just the arresting officer," Devine said. "I have to depend on other people to provide me with the information to provide to the federal government. Those people aren't under my control. I was told two weeks ago by the state police that (the outstanding information) would be in our hands in a week, and I still don't have it."

The pace of the progress also prompted John Mingee recently to contact the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson.

Johnson spokesman Jen Callahan said she's been working on the case about two weeks but has assured the Mingees the congressman wants to help.

Callahan said she's been in touch with a trial attorney at the Department of Justice who works on extraditions and plans to track the extradition papers to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, where they go next.

"We want to do whatever we can to make sure (the Department of Justice) is doing everything in their power and that the embassy knows this is important to the congressman and our district," Callahan said, adding she's also aware of the Mexican government's stance on extraditing people accused of crimes that are considered unintentional acts.

The Mingees know getting Nunez back to Watseka is a long shot.

"But when you're the father and mother grieving over a child, it's worth that one chance," Brenda said.

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