Public Safety

A text, two deaths, a Marion mom's life forever changed

Next month marks 2 years since texting driver struck her car

Jenny Perez and daughter Mia Perez, 6, both of Marion, look at photos Tuesday of Selena Apodaca and Bella Severson at her home. Perez’s daughters Selena, 16, and Bella, 13, were killed on Nov. 3, 2016, when Keith Furne crashed into them while text messaging on County Home Road. A jury convicted Furne of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jenny Perez and two other daughters, Elysia Severson and Mia Perez, were also in the car at the time and suffered injuries. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Jenny Perez and daughter Mia Perez, 6, both of Marion, look at photos Tuesday of Selena Apodaca and Bella Severson at her home. Perez’s daughters Selena, 16, and Bella, 13, were killed on Nov. 3, 2016, when Keith Furne crashed into them while text messaging on County Home Road. A jury convicted Furne of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jenny Perez and two other daughters, Elysia Severson and Mia Perez, were also in the car at the time and suffered injuries. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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MARION — Jenny Perez waits for the day she “falls apart,” the day she remembers details of the horrific crash that killed her 13- and 16-year-old daughters nearly two years ago.

“It’s still hard to believe they are gone,” Perez said, starting to tear up as she sat in her Marion home last week, talking about the deaths of Selena Apodaca, 16, and Bella Severson, 13, in the Nov. 3, 2016, crash.

“Selena would have been in college now,” she said. “Bella would have been in high school. I see their friends growing up, but the girls are still 13 and 16 to me. I haven’t begun to grieve.”

Perez said their deaths did not seem real to her until the trial earlier this year of the man who ended their lives because he was texting while driving north of Marion.

The pickup driven by Keith Furne, 37, of Cedar Rapids, smashed into the back of Perez’s compact car as she was waiting to turn from County Home Road onto North Troy Road, on her way home with her four daughters.

Selena and Bella, sitting in back seat, died from massive blunt-force injuries.

A Story County jury in April convicted Furne of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury. <URL destination="https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/judge-sentences-keith-furne-to-10-years-in-prison-for-texting-while-driving-in-fatal-crash-that-killed-two-teensxa0selena-apodaca-isabella-elysia-seversonxa0-20180604">He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

</URL>“I couldn’t go forward until after the trial,” Perez said, sitting in the kitchen with photos of her daughters, as she started to cry again.

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Her 6-year-old daughter, Mia, left the room and came back with a stuffed white kitty she gave to her mom. Perez wiped her tears and took the kitty, thanking her daughter, who returned to coloring a picture.

CAN’T LET GO

Perez said she picked out two burial plots and headstones for her daughters two weeks ago, though she’s not ready yet to bury their cremated remains. She pointed out their urns in the house, where they will stay, for now.

She did move some of their clothes and belongings, packed into boxes piled against her bedroom wall, to the garage. She wanted the memories close to her but felt it was time to move them out of her bedroom, which she needs as a refuge.

“Every night, I lie down and think about them,” Perez said. “I miss the sound of their voices, their laughter and smiles. Selena and I were very close. She would tell me everything. She was outgoing, and everyone loved her.”

“Bella loved the band 5 Seconds of Summer and loved singing,” she said. “She also loved British and Australian accents. She would use them to make all of us laugh. She also loved makeup and would spend hours trying different styles.”

PUSHING DOWN GRIEF

Perez, a single mother who always has been independent, acknowledged she puts up a “wall” between herself and the outside world, going through the motions of everyday life.

She said she pushes down her grief to focus on her two other daughters — Mia Perez, 6, and Elysia Severson, 16, who were injured in the crash.

Mia had a brain bleed and was hospitalized for a week, but had no permanent damage. She doesn’t remember what happened, Perez said.

But Elysia suffered major brain and spinal cord injuries and lost mobility on the right side of her body. She continues to have issues.

Perez suffered 10 broken ribs and a broken shoulder bone and also suffered a concussion when the bars of the headrest “scalped” the back of her head upon impact in the crash.

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She doesn’t remember her hospital stay or details of the crash. She does remember leaving Linn-Mar High School after picking up the girls and driving toward County Home Road. She also remembers a blue sky with “puffy white clouds,” but then feels pain and sees flashes of being in an ambulance.

Perez said she heard someone say Selena and Bella didn’t make it. She knows she was in shock.

One of the hardest things, she said, was having to tell Elysia — again and again — about her sisters. Because of her injuries, Elysia was put into a comatose state. Perez had to tell her, every time she became conscious, that the family had been in a car crash and that two of her sisters had died.

It was particularly tough during and after the trial, Perez said. She was working full-time and going to Kirkwood Community College, studying software development, but she couldn’t keep going and ended up quitting both.

Perez admitted to having times over the last two years when she stayed in bed sleeping, not caring if dirty dishes were left in the sink. Her family and friends were there for her, but, she said, they didn’t always know what to do.

Therapy, Perez said, has helped. She returned to Kirkwood this fall and will start a part-time job/internship Monday at a company. She hopes to be a data or business analyst someday.

But for now, she’s easing herself back into life.

TEXTING & DRIVING

What has helped Perez the most, she said, is talking about her daughters and telling others how they can prevent a tragedy like hers by putting down their cellphones when driving.

The crash, she said, proved that a one-word text of “Yep” distracted Furne enough to take the lives of “two innocent children.”

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Furne was driving 60 mph west on County Home Road when his pickup hit the Perez car, trial testimony showed. The pickup continued another 670 feet before stopping. He never braked.

“This was absolutely a preventable crash,” Perez said. “I don’t want others to go through what I have. The phone can go in your trunk while driving — you’ll be OK without it. Or turn on your ‘do not disturb’ to let other know you’re driving.”

Perez said she sees people texting and driving every day, and it angers her.

She supports the Linn-Mar students who started STOP — Standing Together Opposing Phones while driving. She and STOP members went to the state Capitol in Des Moines last year to support efforts to make texting while driving a primary offense, a measure Iowa lawmakers passed. Perez, however, will not be satisfied until the state goes “hands-free” — banning all cellphone usage while driving.

REMEMBERING

Perez and the STOP group plan to remember and honor Selena and Bella on Nov. 3, the two-year anniversary of the crash, by holding up their photos and messages against texting while driving inside and outside Lindale Mall and the Walmart parking lot on Blairs Ferry Road NE.

She is busy attaching photos of her daughters to poster boards and making signs for it.

The photos of Selena and Bella were taken only a few days before the crash and were on her laptop computer, which was in the trunk. The laptop was badly damaged in the crash, though its memory card survived.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “So grateful. I took photos of them every year. These are my last photos.”

•Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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