Public Safety

Cedar Rapids mother of teens killed in texting-while-driving crash was 'emotional mess' at driver's parole hearing

Keith Furne was texting while driving, served two years in prison

Keith Furne is taken into custody following a sentencing hearing at the Linn County District Courthouse in Cedar Rapids
Keith Furne is taken into custody following a sentencing hearing at the Linn County District Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Monday, June 4, 2018. Furne will serve two sentences of ten years and one sentence of five years in prison for his role in the deaths of two minors while he was texting and driving on County Home Road in 2016. The sentences will run concurrently. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jenny Perez was “shocked” to learn the Cedar Rapids man who caused the death of her two teenage daughters and permanently injured another one because he was texting while driving was likely going to be paroled after serving only two years in prison.

“I received an email last month,” Perez of Cedar Rapids, told The Gazette Thursday. “I was a mess for a few days.

“It wasn’t the first time he tried. He asked before but was denied. So, I was shocked when the victim services liaison said he was having an interview (with Iowa Board of Parole). The department of corrections recommended early parole and she warned me there was good chance he would get it.”

Perez said it was unreal last Tuesday watching the video of the parole interview of Keith Furne, 39, a former city worker, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 for two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury.

“I didn’t think he should be in prison for life or anything, but I expected it to be four or five years on a 10-year sentence for taking two lives,” Perez said.

“My daughters are still gone and Elysia” — her daughter, now 18, who was seriously injured in crash — “still is disabled. Elysia was really upset about the parole. I was an emotional mess.”

Perez said her family members were at her house watching the video hearing. She and Elysia had the opportunity to speak, but she believed it didn’t make an impact because Furne had no criminal record and no incidents while in prison, which helped support early release, she said.

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She appreciated Furne saying he was sorry, during the hearing, and taking responsibility for the fatal crash because he never showed any emotion during his trial and his defense was denying he sent a text message while driving, Perez said.

One board member seemed “disgusted” with him, Perez said, stating he wasn’t a young driver at 35, when the crash happened, and she didn’t understand that he didn’t know any better. Furne did acknowledge he shouldn’t have been on his cell, she said.

Although, Perez said Furne seemed more worried about himself and how his family was affected.

The Gazette attempted to get details of Furne’s parole, but the Iowa Board of Parole chairwoman didn’t respond to email requests.

The Iowa Department of Corrections provided some basic information from its system but didn’t have details of the board’s decision-making process because the board is an independent agency.

The department did confirm Furne received early release and was ordered to be on parole until Dec. 8, 2022.

Perez said the board also ordered conditions of release, including no contact with her family, cognitive behavioral and mental health evaluations, and complete treatment programs and 100 hours of community service.

The board suggested he might go out in the community and share his story and bring awareness to the fatal consequences of texting while driving, which Perez believed should be part of his rehabilitation.

Evidence at trial

Trial testimony showed Furne smashed his pickup truck into the back of Perez’s compact car that was stopped at the intersection of County Home Road and North Troy Nov. 3, 2016. According to evidence, he was sending a one word text message, “Yep,” as he was going 60 mph at impact and didn’t brake.

Perez had picked up her four daughters from school that day and they were headed to their Marion home.

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Daughters, Selena Apodaca, 16, Bella Severson, 13, sitting in the back seat, died from massive blunt-force injuries. Elysia Severson, then 14, was in the front seat and suffered major brain and spinal cord injuries and lost mobility on the right side of her body.

Perez’s youngest, Mia, who was 4 at the time and also in the back seat, suffered a brain bleed and was hospitalized for a week. Perez also had 10 broken ribs, a broken shoulder bone and a concussion.

Moving on not easy

For Perez, she can’t believe it’s been four years without her girls.

“It’s not any easier,” Perez, tearing up, said this past week. “In fact, the more time goes by, it’s harder because you realize they’ve been gone for that many years.”

Perez was on “autopilot or in a robot state” for the first two years after their deaths.

“I would break down in the car,” she said as her voice quivered. “I think about them when I get up and go to bed. The hole in my heart can’t be filled.”

Perez still has no memory of the actual crash. Sometimes, she wakes up in the middle of the night with a panic or anxiety attack.

One night she awoke to a “huge crash.” She thought it might have been a flashback.

She continues to keep the ashes of Selena and Bella, who were cremated, in her home. Perez purchased burial plots for them but she’s “not ready to put them in the ground.”

Perez instead had a bench made in memory of the girls, so their friends or family would have someplace to visit them at Oak Shade Cemetery in Marion. The bench is engraved with photos of the sisters.

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She hopes sharing her loss can help bring awareness to the texting-while-driving problem, which is nationwide. She joined Linn-Mar Community School District students in 2017 at the state Capitol in Des Moines to support a law that made texting while driving a primary offense.

She believes the law should be stricter and is willing to help support Iowa’s hands-free bill, which would ban the use of any electronic device while driving unless in hands-free mode. The proposed bill is headed to the full Senate committee.

People need to be conscious of the fact that they are driving a “deadly weapon” and being distracted while driving can kill, she noted.

“No matter how important you think it is. It can wait,” Perez stressed. “Pull over. Just stop if you have to be on your phone.

“We’ve lived and drove without cellphones and survived. Some aren’t surviving now.”

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

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