Mother who lost two daughters in horrific crash fights to curb distracted driving by police

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Kim Schlau stands in front of an auditorium full of police officers, speaking candidly and emotionally about her daughters.

For anyone who knows the story of the St. Louis-area woman, the scenario may seem surprising. After all, Schlau has every reason in the world not to like cops.

But during an April afternoon at Johnson County Community College, she recalls fond memories of her daughters as photos flash behind her on a projection screen.

"Jessica wanted to be in public relations and marketing. Kelli wanted to be a vet," she begins. "Every parent says their kids are great, but I think mine actually were."

On the day after Thanksgiving of 2007, sisters Jessica Uhl, 18, and Kelli Uhl, 13, were killed in a horrific crash along Interstate 64. Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell crossed the median on I-64 and struck their oncoming car.

"He literally drove through the top of their car," Shlau tells the officers as a gruesome photo of the crash is displayed behind her.

Mitchell had been traveling at up to 126 mph in his squad car, while using his car computer to email for directions and talking on a cellphone to his girlfriend.

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The Collinsville, Ill., sisters were headed home to Schlau's house after a holiday photo session at their father's home.

Schlau remembers not being able to reach the girls by phone when they did not show up at home. Jessica's work then called, wondering where she was, adding to the mother's panic.

Five hours after the crash, she saw an Illinois State Police car pulling up to her home, along with the coroner.

"I didn't want to open the door because if I opened the door, it became real," Schlau told 41 Action News. "Until I opened that door, I still had three daughters, and I knew that opening the door was going to change all of that."

Mitchell pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and resigned from the Illinois State Police.

Later, the family of the Uhl sisters was awarded $8 million in a suit filed against Mitchell. It's believed by lawyers to be the largest claim ever awarded by the state Court of Claims.

Schlau lobbied for change on behalf of her daughters. Illinois lawmakers signed a bill that bars state employees injured during the commission of a crime from collecting workers' compensation money. Mitchell had applied for benefits for injuries from the crash.

Illinois lawmakers also named the stretch of I-64 as the "Jessica and Kelli Uhl Memorial Highway."

Finally, the Illinois State Police made dramatic policy changes the year after deadly wreck. They include limiting the speed at which officers can respond to an emergency call, requiring hands-free cellphones and mandating video recording equipment be activated in a squad car while emergency lights are in use. Mitchell's camera was not on to capture the crash. He also testified that he did not hear a dispatcher notify him that the scene he was responding to was under control.

"It's so sad that I had to lose my kids for those changes to happen," Schlau said. "I would like to see police become more proactive than reactive. But the nature of policy changes is it usually takes something tragic to happen first."

Schlau is doing her best to put a face on distracted driving and get police departments to think about the policies they have in place. It is the reason she spoke at Johnson County Community College in April at a seminar hosted by Lifeline Training.

Her message is effective. After the presentation, several officers -- both rookies and veterans -- approached Schlau to thank her. Some asked if she'd be willing to address their entire departments or classes of new recruits.

Dashcam videos | Police crashes http://bit.ly/ZCwTjL

"It's an important part of the healing process," said Schlau, who even takes her youngest daughter, Madelyn, to some of the seminars.

"I had to tell an 8-year-old that a police officer killed her older sisters," said Schlau. "It's important for her to see all the good officers. I don't want her to think that all cops are bad."

Schlau established the Jessica and Kelli Uhl Memorial Foundation. Money raised helps fund scholarships along with Schlau's work to promote more training and education for police officers around the country.

One emerging technology disables police in-car computers once the vehicle reaches a certain speed. Schlau hopes this is an anti-distracted driving strategy that more police departments consider.

The path Schlau has chosen forces her to constantly relive the immense tragedy. But the mother said she finds strength by turning her anguish into advocacy.

"It's helping me introduce my daughters

to people who otherwise aren't going to know them," she told 41 Action News. "I'm very proud to carry their legacy for them."

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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