Bellevue University’s graduation festivities last weekend reminded Michelle Root of the great joy and, then, searing pain she endured a year ago.
On Jan. 30, 2016, Michelle’s daughter, Sarah Root, graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average, eager to work in forensics.
The next morning, Michelle heard from her son that Sarah, 21, had been fatally injured by a drunken driver shortly after 2 a.m. in a crash near 33rd and L Streets.
Police have said the driver, Eswin Mejia, was street racing in a pickup truck and rear-ended Sarah’s car. Mejia, who was in the country illegally, never appeared in court after posting bail and is still being sought by authorities.
Federal immigration officials had denied local law enforcement requests to detain him.
“All these emotions run back to you,” Michelle Root said Tuesday. “For him to be out there free is not right, not right at all. It was an injustice done to Sarah.”
Over the past year, Root has been a heartbroken mother, an advocate against illegal immigration and drunken driving and a supporter of Donald Trump’s successful campaign for president.
A balloon release is scheduled for 7 tonight at 33rd and L to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Sarah’s death. Representatives for U.S. Rep. Don Bacon and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, both Nebraska Republicans, are expected to attend.
Mejia, then 19, was charged with felony motor vehicle homicide in connection with the Jan. 31 collision. He posted $5,000 bail — the required 10 percent of the $50,000 amount set by Douglas County Judge Jeffrey Marcuzzo — and did not appear at subsequent court hearings.
Lawmakers criticized U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and questioned why the Honduran man wasn’t detained by federal officials.
Nebraska and Iowa lawmakers have introduced "Sarah's Law." The legislation would require federal immigration officials to take custody of any person in the country illegally who is charged with a crime resulting in the death or serious injury of another person.
Michelle is still angry at Marcuzzo, ICE officials and Mejia.
“I know I’m a hypocrite, because I always taught my kids to forgive, but I will never forgive,” she said.
Omaha Crime Stoppers will pay $5,000, and Sarah Root’s relatives have raised another $10,000 for someone who provides a tip on Mejia’s whereabouts.
Tipsters can provide information anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 402-444-7867.
Trump mentioned Sarah in his campaign rallies to bolster support for a crackdown on illegal immigration. At an Omaha rally in May, Michelle Root and her family met with Trump. Trump even invoked the family's plight during his speech at the Republican National Convention.
Root said she supports the president’s recent executive order on travel restrictions for people from seven countries and the plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I am very proud of him for keeping his word,” she said. “I want some of that stuff to become law. We still have a lot to do.”
Root said she plans to continue to share Sarah’s story in the hopes that no other families suffer.
On Friday, she will testify in front of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in support of State Sen. Carol Blood’s bill that would allow evidence of drunken driving to be admissable in lawsuits.
“We are still seeing deaths caused by illegal aliens, we’re seeing other crimes done,” she said. “I don’t know that we can get rid of it all, but at least us speaking up has detained a lot of these criminals that have killed loved ones.”
Stay with Omaha.com for updates from tonight's event.