Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Run-In With Murder Suspect Crunches Woman's Finances


Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Published: June 23, 2008

WEST BRADENTON — She had a hard time getting by even before a murder suspect smashed her car one night near the interstate.

Sundstrom worked two jobs, lived alone in a duplex and drove a 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier with nearly 100,000 miles on it. She fretted over bills that she sometimes could not pay on time.

Then, on the night of June 8, came the collision with a sport utility vehicle driven by Harold Dean Wallwin, a homeless lawn man accused of murder.

Sundstrom was sitting at a light and heard a screech before Wallwin ran into her car's front end. Doctors told her not to go back to work. Her car is totaled -- the insurance company offered $800, she said -- and family can only do so much to help.

She says she feels for those who knew Mary Jane Blake, the widow who hired Wallwin to clean her garage and was found dead in her home on Lockwood Ridge Road.

She is angry with Wallwin. She says that one gruesome act affected so many people: Blake's family, her family, co-workers covering her shift at Winn-Dixie, friends who wired cab money.

"He gets three square meals and a cot in jail," Sundstrom says. "I get a stack of bills I don't know how I am going to pay."

She says she spent three years trying to get her life back together after leaving an abusive relationship and moving into a domestic-violence shelter.

Sundstrom is a chef by trade and found modest work in grocery store bakeries and, recently, the cafeteria at Haile Middle School.

She lives in west Bradenton with her birds. The Cavalier was a prized possession. It gave her independence.

The day of the crash, she taught a friend's daughter how to make cinnamon chili.

"She is a great cook," says Sol Cruz, 15.

She dropped Cruz off at 9 that night in Sarasota and headed toward the highway. She idled at Bee Ridge and Cattlemen roads. Tires screeched in the distance. A sport utility vehicle roared around the corner.

"My God," Sundstrom says she thought. "He's going to hit me."

Wallwin clipped two vehicles, drove into oncoming traffic and jumped the median to get back on Bee Ridge, authorities say. He was stopped a few minutes later.

In the back of a Florida Highway Patrol car, Sundstrom was retelling the accident to a trooper. His Motorola two-way pager chirped and the trooper put it to his ear.

"A homicide?" he said. "Really?"

Sundstrom did not want to pry. It started to rain, and she needed a cab to get home. Her back was aching. She had a few dollars, and the fare was going to be about $140 to drop her off in West Bradenton. A friend wired the money.

"Look at my car," she told the trooper. "What am I going to do?"

"You should feel lucky," the trooper said. "That guy killed a lady."

The next day, she rode her bicycle to a walk-in clinic. A doctor told her not to go back to work. She lifts heavy, frozen dough at Winn-Dixie, carries boxes and rolls bread. The doctor prescribed painkillers and ordered her not to work for at least a month.

In the doctor's office, Wallwin's mug shot appeared on a TV news program. She learned that Wallwin was accused of killing Blake, 76, with a hammer after cleaning her garage for $20.

"Sick," Sundstrom says. "He's sick."

Wallwin eventually was charged with murder, DUI and leaving the scene of an accident.

Wallwin, in jail, did not respond to requests for an interview. He will be arraigned July 11.

Police say he told them he killed Blake, and prosecutors could seek the death penalty.

Sundstrom, meanwhile, is trying to get by.

Her family drove down a temporary car from New Jersey, but the brakes were shot and they had to put it in the shop. She was using the bike and sometimes relying on friends. Her bosses have been understanding, but she needs the paycheck.

Rent is due soon, and her landlord already gave her a break after the accident. On Thursday, she realized that she could not afford both her cellular and home phone bills.

"It might be too expensive to keep the cell," she says. "But I don't know what else to do."

No comments: