Bay Area family attempts to carry on following tragic accident deaths
When Robert Scott climbed behind the wheel Jan. 17, 1997, he started a fatal game of roulette with his passengers’ lives, as well as the passengers and drivers of other cars he passed along highways 28 and 267.
After driving with a blood alcohol content of .20 – twice the legal limit, Scott was recently sentenced for killing four people in a multiple-car accident in the middle of the Martis Valley on Highway 267.
The tragic aftermath of the accident, which also injured five others, still haunts a Bay Area family who lost three members during the crash nearly two years ago.
Now a month after Scott was sentenced in Placer County Superior Court to four concurrent life sentences on four counts of second-degree murder, Judy Peckler tells her side of the story – how it was for her and her two daughters to become a family of three. A Los Gatos resident, Peckler lost her husband, 15-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter.
“This is all beyond our comprehension,” she said. “No one would ever want to go through it or touch it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come to grips with the way my children and husband were taken from us so violently.”
Peckler said she remained distant from Scott and his family since the accident and cannot comment except to say that she would not like to be Scott’s parents.
“All I can comment on is the character and dignity of my family,” she said. “All I can be is advocate for my family.”
Peckler said advocacy begins with helping her family, friends and society make responsible decisions.
“This tragedy has made us conscious of what others are doing around us,” she said. “The burden is a constant one. It’s not only about ourselves, but about others and about society.”
Ironically, Peckler’s 21-year-old daughter Jill had made a responsible decision only weeks before she was killed. When she and three other friends realized they had had too much alcohol at a party, Jill called her parents for a ride home.
“They were only a mile from home, but they knew that it wasn’t worth the danger,” Peckler said. “And since then we have been trying to show others the importance of making the same responsible decisions.”
During the past summer, Peckler’s daughter Jana was traveling along a road with a friend of Jill’s when they noticed a car swerving in front of them. Peckler said they followed the car until it was parked and made a citizen’s arrest of the intoxicated driver, who had a child in the car with him.
“I don’t know how people make these decisions,” she said. “A decision like this took my family away – violently.”
The Peckler family had been a part of the Truckee community for many years as second homeowners at Northstar. The children had spent summers in the Sierra, and had attended the Truckee Rodeo, chili cook- offs and July 4 parades in the 1980s. James, Jill and Jeff Peckler were on their way to Northstar the night Scott drove drunk with his girlfriend and brother in his 1988 Ford pickup.
“You spend your entire life trying to keep your children safe,” she said. “I was always afraid that someone would kidnap my beautiful children, so I never let my kids out of my sight when they were little. I know that Jim was driving safely on Highway 267 that day, and I only hope he had no idea what happened when the other driver crossed over the line. That’s what devastates me just to think about.”
Scott left the Crystal Bay Casino on his way home with his passengers after apparently gambling and drinking. His brother was riding “shotgun” in the back of the pickup when Scott drove through Martis Valley at speeds close to 70 mph. Witnesses never saw Scott’s driving falter until, when rounding a turn, Scott’s truck went straight into oncoming traffic. The Pecklers’ 1995 GMC Jimmy was hit head-on, and a 1992 Honda Civic was hit next as Scott’s truck spun out of control, according to California Highway Patrol reports.
James Scott, Scott’s brother was killed when he was thrown from the back of the Ford, and Scott’s girlfriend was found seriously injured after her body was thrown through the truck’s windshield. The driver and three passengers in the Honda were also injured.
Scott had severe internal injuries and was hospitalized for several weeks. In a statement made in the probation report after Scott’s guilty plea, Scott said, “Alcohol has always been my drug of choice … I don’t think I will ever drink again.”
Scott had a record of violations before he killed four people and injured himself and four others.
From the probation report, it was recorded that Scott had had a prior DUI conviction, and had agreed not to drink Jan. 5, 1996, during a meeting with a probation officer. While on probation after the first DUI conviction, Scott pulled his car over to help a driver who had driven off the side of the road. When a law enforcement officer arrived at the scene, he noticed that Scott had been drinking and reported the incident to probation, according to the probation report.
With the holidays just around the corner, Peckler said she hopes to ingrain a message about safe and responsible driving in the minds of drivers. The Pecklers just celebrated a holiday, missing three family members who once rounded out the family photos.
“As a mom, I always see the best in my family,” Peckler said. “They were handsome people. Both inside and outside.”
Due to deadline, the Sierra Sun was unable to publish a photo of the six-member Peckler family, but Peckler was clear about painting a visual of what her husband James, son Jeff and daughter Jill were like.
“Jeff had a huge smile. He was never sad and always had a hug and a smile for everyone. He was truly the most popular boy in school even though he was only a freshman. He touched a lot of lives even though he was 15 years old when he died. I heard it in the courtroom, about the wonderful things he and my daughter had done.
“Jill was 5-11 (height), and absolutely beautiful. She had the opportunity to be a model, but because she was an athlete she didn’t want to do it. She played softball, which she wouldn’t have been able to do if she modeled. She would have graduated the following June after the accident, right on Father’s Day. She wanted to be a doctor. She had a 3.8 grade-point average and was an All-American athlete.
“James, my husband, was 6-4 (height). He was really handsome. What can I say?”
Peckler said she commends her daughters Jana and Jennifer for surviving the loss of their loved ones as well as they have.
“They are so strong,” she said. “But no one should have to be put in this situation. It can be prevented.”
Jana walked down the aisle to be married without her father Oct. 4, and Jennifer sacrificed her life in Southern California to move to Los Gatos to run the family business that James headed up for more than 28 years. For Peckler, who shares the same birthdate as her husband, the constant reminder of the reality that her family is faced with hangs on.
During the sentencing in Judge Richard Couzens’ Placer County courtroom, letters written to the judge were read. Peckler had a few words of her own.
“For Robert Scott – I would ask that once a year, on the anniversary of the choice you made to drink and drive – the day you took away all my family’s hopes, dreams and choices, to please read the memory cards, letters and poems written for them – not as a punishment, but to celebrate and memorialize the love they shared with others.”
She recited the words on their gravestone: “The music of your laughter, the compassionate lyrics of your lives, silenced by a drunk driver, will sing in our hearts forever.”
Peckler, along with friends and family members, memorialized the taking of their friends and family Nov. 5, the day after Scott was sentenced. They returned to the crash site with a cross and rocks painted with personal messages.
“It was the first time I had been to the site,” she said. “I fretted that day until I got there. I realized how peaceful that valley (Martis) is. A feeling of deep peace came over me. I now know it is all right for me to go back.”
Another reason for the Pecklers’ return to Truckee was to thank the law enforcement officers who were on scene and who helped throughout the judicial process. She said she was thankful for the kindness of the Tahoe Forest Hospital nurses and doctors who also helped back in 1997.
“Everyone was so kind and supportive,” she said. “(California Highway Patrol Capt.) Don Bossingham is one of the kindest and most compassionate people I’ve ever met. Truckee is lucky to have a crew like his.”
Placer County District Attorney Gene Gini said he has lived this tragedy with the Pecklers for more than a year.
“This was a preventable tragedy,” he said. “We need to get out the message about how families are destroyed when tragedies like this happen. We’re into the holidays, and people have to realize that they shouldn’t drink and drive. It should be an easy decision.”
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