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Parents set aside grief, anger to help teen who killed their child

Tanya and John Loerup, with their son, Joey, chose to seek probation for the teenage boy who fatally struck their young daughter with his car.
(Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

For a long time, John Loerop just wanted revenge.

After he had heard the screams, after he had tried to revive his daughter with CPR, after he had attended her funeral, he wanted the boy who had hit her with his car to pay.

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But eventually, Loerop’s heart changed.

DeAndre Wolfe, then 16, was driving home after picking up a Mother’s Day present in 2011 when his car struck 4-year-old Annabella Loerop, who had gone into the street in her Tinley Park neighborhood to recover a wayward basketball.

Wolfe, a student at Tinley Park High School, had traces of marijuana in his system, and about three months after the accident he was charged with reckless homicide and driving under the influence.

If convicted, he was facing prison time. But after numerous court hearings and anguished conversations, Loerop and his wife decided that wasn’t what they wanted.

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A nurse at Stateville Correctional Center in northern Illinois, Loerop has seen young men go into prison and become even harder behind bars. So he and his wife gave the teen a chance at life their daughter would never have.

At the Loerops’ urging, prosecutors offered a plea deal to Wolfe — they would drop the reckless-homicide charges and Wolfe would plead guilty to aggravated DUI, receiving probation and 480 hours of community service rather than a prison term.

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“My husband felt strongly, and I completely agreed, that prison would completely ruin [Wolfe], and that wouldn’t honor our daughter’s life either,” said Tanya Loerop.

“We decided that the loss of one life does not equate the necessity to completely and totally waste another life.”

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Wolfe, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Forest, graduated last summer from high school, where he played football and baseball and ran track. He works at a gas station and a concert hall’s warehouse and plans to study audio engineering in Arizona beginning this year.

He has denied speeding or being high when he hit Annabella on May 9, 2011. Judge John Hynes noted that Wolfe had no prior criminal or delinquent record, and the teen cooperated with police at the scene.

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His attorney, Shay Allen, said Wolfe was convicted because of the state’s “antiquated” and “draconian” strict liability law. Prosecutors do not have to prove that a driver was under the influence at the time of an accident if they have any amount of illegal substance in their system, Allen said.

John Loerop wasn’t looking for punishment until he learned that Wolfe had marijuana in his system and he was charged in court.

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“It was wanting him to go to jail, wanting him to suffer, wanting to ruin his life,” Loerop said.

But over time, as Wolfe’s hearings passed, the Loerops said they believed he wasn’t high at the time of the accident. When prosecutors met with the Loerops in April and asked what they wanted, they suggested probation. They wanted punishment, but not something that would ruin Wolfe’s life.

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At sentencing last month, Wolfe cried as he explained to the court that the child’s death has haunted him. “It’s never not in my mind,” Wolfe said. “The memory of seeing the little girl laying on the ground and seeing the father run out.”

According to John Loerop, his daughter ran toward the street to grab a basketball while her grandfather and brother stayed in the yard.

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She looked both ways and it was clear. She threw the ball back and saw a car coming, so she stopped and waited. When that car passed, she ran, and that’s when she was hit by Wolfe’s Buick.

In addition to probation and community service, the judge ordered Wolfe to participate in a drug and alcohol treatment program.

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Annabella was the Loerops’ oldest child, born after two years of infertility treatment. They had given up hope of having a child when she was conceived; they called her their “miracle child.” They also have a son, Joey, and another child on the way.

The Loerops’ forgiveness has not eliminated their grief.

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“It doesn’t mean we’re not angry or devastated by the loss,” John Loerop said. “But we have completely forgiven him.”

And the Loerops hope Wolfe will go on to live a healthy, productive life.

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“I want DeAndre to use this experience to help himself and to help others,” John Loerop said.

“I don’t want two lives wasted.”

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gpratt@tribune.com


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