The Herald Bulletin

Evening Update

Local News

April 26, 2014

Rebecca Sperry: 'God has a purpose for us'

Young widow healing, rejoicing in new life, mourning husband after fatal crash

PENDLETON, Ind. — Rebecca Sperry has a vase full of roses from her husband, Jesse.

She collected the flowers one at a time over the years as the couple dated at Pendleton Heights High School, grew closer at Edgewood Baptist Church and eventually married. Each rose is a different color. Each carries a special memory of Jesse and their relationship.

Jesse gave some of the roses to Rebecca for encouragement during tough times. Some were for romance. Some were ... well, just because.

“One time, we were just out together, and he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have a purple rose yet, do you?’ ” Rebecca recalled with a smile. “Each one has a special, precious memory.”

Rebecca might have imagined that the roses from her husband would keep coming, one at a time, through the years as the couple’s love deepened and they advanced slowly, gracefully from youth toward old age.

But on April 6, the curtain fell abruptly on Rebecca and Jesse’s future.

It happened in an instant on a quiet stretch of state highway on a beautiful spring afternoon.

On their way home from church, Jesse was killed and Rebecca was seriously hurt in a violent car crash on Indiana 32 between Anderson and Lapel.

Rebecca was nine months pregnant. She had been scheduled to have labor induced the night of the crash. Despite Rebecca’s variety of serious injuries, including a torn uterus, Autumn Marie, the couple’s first child, was delivered by emergency Caesarean section just a few hours after her father’s death.

Over the past three weeks, Rebecca and her family have rejoiced in the sublime joy of Autumn’s arrival while grappling with the devastating loss of Jesse.

Rebecca is walking again. The physical wounds are healing. And the memory of holding her husband as he took his last breath is etched in her mind.

Cradling her baby and wrapped in a worn, old sweatshirt that belonged to Jesse, Rebecca took time on a recent afternoon to look back at her life with Jesse and forward to her life with Autumn.

A bright future

The Sperrys had planned for April 6 to be a special day. The two woke up and, as they did every Sunday, attended a service at Edgewood Baptist Church.

Unlike any other Sunday, it was the day they planned to become parents, the day designated for inducing labor. The couple wanted a child of their own. They had picked out a name — Autumn Marie — long before.

Fall was Rebecca and Jesse’s favorite season, and Rebecca wanted also to pass on her middle name to her daughter. They were ready, as ready as a young couple can be, for their first child. Still, both were entering a largely unscripted chapter of uncertainty in their lives.

Jesse, strong and confident at age 23, had been a pillar of support for Rebecca and the rest of his family. But with Autumn’s birth approaching, he grew anxious.

His mother, Janelle Cox, needled him at dinner about his nervousness. Usually, it would be Jesse making the jokes. Whether it was wrapping Christmas presents in layers of duct tape or plotting heart-stopping surprises, Jesse was a stealthy prankster.

His father, Rick Sperry, acknowledged that trait in Jesse.

“He was my sidekick. We were buddies. We used to have fishing competitions when he was younger,” Rick said. “He was one of those quiet kids who didn’t party and do a lot of things younger people do. But once he got to know you, here came the pranks.”

Even Rebecca, known for her quick smile, was anxious, a 22-year-old worried about the pain of giving birth. With the appointment to induce labor drawing closer, her stomach churned during car rides.

Jesse and Rebecca found solace in their shared Christian faith. Their faith had brought them together; they knew it would sustain them through their journey into parenthood.

After church the morning of April 6, the two climbed into their 1996 Buick Century to run errands and eventually return to their apartment in Anderson. Rebecca drove. Gripping the steering wheel helped her control her upset stomach.

Plus, Jesse needed to rest. He had recently picked up a second job and was working around the clock, logging double shifts at least twice a week.

Money was tight for the young couple, and they didn’t have health insurance. Despite the constraints, they wanted to raise their child the right way.

The two agreed they wanted a parent at home with the child as much as possible during her formative years. That meant Rebecca would quit her job at a nearby gas station, at least until Autumn Marie started school.

Jesse planned to get a better job soon so they could start saving for Autumn’s college fund. Ultimately, they wanted their own business.

The couple dreamed of opening an auto shop. After the birth of Autumn, according to the plan, Jesse would attend business school and mechanics classes. Rebecca, always good with numbers, would take care of the accounting side.

Losing Jesse

About noon, the couple discussed the sermon they had just heard as they drove west from Edgewood Baptist on Indiana 32.

Rebecca remembers rounding a curve with no other cars in sight about halfway between Anderson and Lapel.

Out of nowhere, a large, black SUV appeared in the rear-view mirror.

“That guy is moving,” she said to Jesse.

Police now believe the 2004 GMC Yukon, driven by off-duty Edgewood Police Officer James D. Foutch, was traveling 92 mph. The Sperrys’ Buick was going about 57 mph.

Rebecca recognized that the approaching vehicle was out of control and not slowing down.

“He’s going to hit us!” she shouted.

The SUV crashed into the smaller sedan from behind, sending it tumbling off the roadway.

Rebecca sensed the car flipping over. Jesse reacted quickly, reaching toward her instinctively.

The next thing Rebecca knew, she was pinned in the wreckage.

The front of the car had taken the brunt of the impact with a utility pole, crumpling the vehicle and snapping the pole in two. Live power lines had fallen onto the car.

Jesse’s motionless body lay on top of Rebecca. Sharp pain told her that her right arm and one of her legs might be broken.

As Rebecca battled to stay conscious, she watched her husband, desperately hoping to see his chest move.

Two men — Foutch and nearby resident Wayne Pinkerton — rushed to the vehicle. She asked them if they thought Jesse was still alive.

Rebecca saw Jesse take one final breath. Then she sensed his life bleeding away.

“It was a blessing to have that last moment with him,” she says. “I knew he had taken his last breath. I let myself relax and lose consciousness. I was thinking about the baby.”

When consciousness returned, emergency workers were cutting away the door of the car to get her out. She had one fleeting hope that Jesse had survived.

She touched him. He had gone cold.

“I knew for sure,” Rebecca says. “That was important to me, because I had that closure before I even left the scene. If there was any sign he might have made it, that would’ve made it a lot harder. I would’ve felt like I was leaving him behind.”

Jesse may have reached toward Rebecca before the impact. The position of Jesse’s body, being near his wife and unborn child, reflects a final action of caring, family members believe.

“It sounds like something he would do,” said Jesse’s sister, Felicia Sperry. “He’s the kind of person who would give his life to save yours.”

At the accident scene, Rebecca instinctively focused on survival — for herself and her unborn baby. She was taken by medical helicopter to St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.

She had lost a lot of blood and had suffered a litany of serious injuries: a broken arm, badly bruised legs, a lacerated spleen and a torn uterus.

The cruelest pain was emotional. Rebecca sensed that the nurses and doctors feared for the baby.

An emergency C-section delivered Autumn into the world, and the baby was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children before Rebecca regained consciousness after surgery.

She woke up in a hospital bed with her parents, John and Lisa Keefe, watching over her.

A difficult week lay ahead.

Simultaneously, Rebecca had to recover from her physical injuries, while coping with the death of her husband and the absence of a child she hadn’t yet held.

Racked with pain and emotional anguish, she fell prey to nightmares. The car crash, Jesse’s death and the constant concern about Autumn haunted her waking hours, as well. The thought of being alone filled her with dread.

As the high tide of desperation threatened to swallow her, Rebecca clung to her belief in God.

“I couldn’t do it without faith,” she said. “When I was having trouble at the hospital, the nurses were great. They recommended I read my Bible ... It gave me strength to go on. It reminded me that God has a purpose for us.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see, and at times it’s going to be very lonely, but he’s still there for us. His purpose didn’t end with Jesse.”

Autumn’s miracle

Doctors at Riley Hospital ran specialized tests on Autumn for a week but found no signs of brain or body damage.

Meanwhile, Rebecca gained strength. A week after Jesse’s death and Autumn’s birth, Rebecca and her baby were released from the hospital. She finally cradled the infant in her arms.

After a week of physical therapy, mother and child moved into the Keefes’ modest home in Pendleton. Rebecca lives in an area set aside with a makeshift wall for her privacy in the living room.

Friends from Edgewood Baptist helped paint her childhood room, which is now Autumn’s nursery. A sonogram picture on the door, soft colors and wood-crafted crib make it clear who occupies the space now.

The Keefes have done everything they can to make their two new residents — daughter and granddaughter — comfortable.

Life after the accident will be a long transition for Rebecca. She has already forgiven Foutch, who has been suspended from the Edgewood police department and faces criminal prosecution for allegedly causing the accident while driving under the influence of drugs.

Rebecca loves her parents. But she wants to be out on her own again eventually. She realizes that could take a while.

“Probably at least a year,” she said. “I can’t imagine decorating for Christmas this year by myself.”

There’s also a short-term financial concern.

Lisa Keefe said the hospital bill for her daughter and granddaughter and the funeral bills for her deceased son-in-law accumulated fast. She noted, though, that the family has made it through tough times before.

This time, they’ll have some help.

The night of the accident, two friends from church created a donation website to help raise funds for the family. The site shows photos of the couple and tracks how much money has been contributed. The church is also taking donations.

Almost $24,000 has been raised — nearly reaching the stated goal of $25,000. Almost 400 supporters — some friends, some family, some complete strangers — have left donations and words of encouragement. Support has also come through the mail and through the couple’s extended church family.

In the wake of the disaster, Rebecca has reconnected with people she hadn’t talked to in years.

Rebecca and her family have been overwhelmed by the support. She visited the website and was able to get through only a few pages of comments before tears of gratitude spilled out. She was especially touched by messages explaining that missionaries outside of the United States had sent money and prayers.

“I thought, ‘There are accidents all the time. Why me?’ ” Rebecca said.

Being back home with family has enabled Rebecca to take stock of her life. While living with parents generally isn’t ideal for someone in their 20s, she appreciates the support and the sense of normalcy restored.

She spends her days with Autumn and visits Jesse’s grave. She’s in the process of unpacking her old life in preparation for a new one.

Jesse had packed almost all of his clothes into the Buick, planning to do some laundry the afternoon of April 6. Nothing was salvageable after the accident.

A few clothes, like the brown sweatshirt Rebecca wore for this interview, were in the Anderson apartment where Rebecca and Jesse had lived. The sweatshirt still carries his smell. She couldn’t leave it.

Rebecca has yet to unpack many of her own belongings, including photo albums and wedding pictures. All of the most important reminders of her husband’s love are right in front of her.

Autumn, Rebecca’s parents say, looks like Jesse.

Rebecca and Autumn are, themselves, reminders that Jesse reached out in that last fateful instant to protect them both.

And, of course, Rebecca has that vase of roses. Each a different color. Each carrying a special memory of Jesse.

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