Justice career born of tragedy

URBANA – She's only 33 years old, but Renae Yandell already has worked for 14 years in two state's attorneys offices, a sheriff's office, a police department and for the FBI.

Her interest in the criminal justice field was sparked by tragedies that struck her own family when she was a child.

Despite the heavy baggage she carries, Yandell is exceptionally pleasant and helpful as the legal secretary to Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, First Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler and the office investigator, Larry Adelsberger.

"She is my right hand, literally. She has taken on so many challenges above and beyond the usual secretarial duties," said Rietz, for whom Yandell has worked a little more than a year. "She schedules me, she's the first person that people talk to when they want to talk to me. She answers questions. She's creative.

"She's a problem-solver, and everybody in the office is coming to her for help in making important decisions from office organization to ongoing computer changes. I couldn't do this job without her."

When Yandell was 8, a drunken driver hit and killed her oldest brother, then 28, as he rode a motorcycle in Stahlstown, Pa. She has little memory of the incident that devastated her parents and changed the way they treated their three remaining children. Her mother believes the man who killed her son was put in a mental institution.

But Yandell remembers clearly the Saturday in May 1989, in Brooksville, Fla., when a drunken driver struck her father, then 59, as he drove his pickup to a machinery auction in Tampa. He lay in a coma for three weeks in a St. Petersburg hospital before he died.

It was a month before her 16th birthday. He was so excited about her getting her driver's license, and she was so disappointed that he wasn't there when she did, the first of countless missed milestones.

Attending court hearings for the man who eventually was convicted of DUI manslaughter in her father's death sparked her interest in criminal justice.

The hospital was an hour from the home she shared with her parents. Her older brother and sister already had moved out and started families of their own. Only two people at a time could visit for a few minutes. The days were long.

"We would rotate in and out. Then we would sit in the lobby and wait for the next visiting time. Then we'd drive home," she said, admitting she did a lot of growing up during the vigil.

One day, she and her mom talked in the hospital cafeteria about what they would do with her dad should he linger in a vegetative state. The next day, he died.

That left her and her mom, who had no health insurance and who was on disability because she is deaf in one ear, to fend for themselves. Her dad, a self-employed excavator who installed septic systems and home foundations, had no health insurance at the time he was hit. The hospital sued her mother for $135,000 in unpaid bills, trying to get their family home and two rental properties.

They hired attorneys who were able to get the suit dismissed. The man who killed her father was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days in the county jail, which he served on weekends. He was also ordered to repay the $135,000.

For years, Yandell said, as if to add insult to injury, her mom would receive cashier's checks in paltry amounts like $5, $10 or $15.

"Mom would never cash them. She threw them in a box, saying, 'I don't want blood money,'" Yandell said. She checked his record recently and learned that some $72,000 went unpaid.

Her father's life insurance paid for her college education. She started with the idea that she would get a business degree and go into advertising. A close family friend was an investigator for the Hernando County state's attorney's office in Brooksville. He persuaded her to leave her part-time job at Wal-Mart and apply for a receptionist's job in his office. She did.

"Once I was in the state's attorney's office, I started criminal justice classes," she said. "I got my bachelor's degree in criminal justice from St. Leo University in Dade City, Fla.

"I was there a little over five years. I went from receptionist to misdemeanor secretary to felony secretary. When I left there I was doing all the murder and capital sex cases, the worst of the cases."

There from 1992 to '96, she left to join the FBI in Tampa, in hopes of working her way up to being a crime analyst, the job she really wanted. After two years at the FBI and no major advancement, she joined the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as a crime analyst.

"I was originally assigned to the drug and vice unit. We'd track leads on whoever we could, run criminal histories for the detectives. They'd come in and say, 'We have a guy we're trying to build a case on who goes by the name of Bobo. He's a white male, 5 feet 10. See what you can find.' We had incredible databases down there. We would run everything we could and give it back to the detectives. It was great," she said.

After working in the drug unit, she was assigned to track property and white-collar crimes.

"A large part of it was doing statistics, like comparing how many stolen cars this year to last year. We had a community-oriented policing program. I was considered part of that team. I would go to meetings and bring my big maps, charts and graphs.

"Now, I usually deal with mad people," she said of her job running interference for Rietz. "Down there I had a lot of contact with businesses wanting to know what crime was (before deciding whether to move in.)"

It was at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that she met her husband, who was a police officer in the vice unit. After joking around with each other at work for months, they finally went on a date as "just friends." A year later, in 2000, they were married.

In 2001, they decided to move to Illinois to be closer to her husband's family in the Mattoon area. They put their home in Tampa on the market one week before the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York.

"When 9/11 happened, it made us even more sure that we wanted to be close to family," she said. Her husband landed his job first with an area police department.

And they brought her mom along. She acts as a caregiver to Yandell's son, who came along in 2004, and changed the way Yandell, the working woman in the field of criminal justice, perceives the world.

"When I grew up, I used to think my mom was overly protective. Now as a mom, I'm catching myself saying I'm going to be 10 times more overprotective than my mom because of the stuff we see every day," she said.

Take sex offenders, for instance. Before marriage and children, the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders were not all that important to her. Not so anymore.

"Poor Colby. He's stuck to my side whether he wants to be or not," she said, adding her husband is not wound quite as tightly when it comes to worrying about their son.

She loves her work, primarily because "there is never a dull moment."

"When you think you've seen it all, a report will come across my desk that will take me by surprise," she said.

Yandell started with the Champaign County state's attorney's office in November 2002 but was laid off because of the loss of grant money. She was kept on as a temporary employee until June 2003, when she went to the Champaign police department, where she worked as a front desk clerk. In November 2004, she returned to the state's attorney's office full time.

Her experiences give her a measure of understanding in dealing with upset people who want Rietz to get justice for them. Yandell said she tells people she understands what they're feeling but they insist she can't know.

"I usually don't tell people my own personal stuff," she said, but she has shared it with three people. "With all three, our relationship completely changed."

She understands the high standards of the law and that not all cases end with the result victims' families want.

"It does stink, but our hands are tied. I'm not the only one who didn't get justice," she said.

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