For Sonoma cyclist's widow, meeting husband's killer changed her life
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 5, 2012 at 10:51 a.m.
For many months, Patty O'Reilly plotted and rehearsed and steeled herself for the perfect act of vengeance on the man who killed her husband on a rural Santa Rosa road in 2004.
On the appointed day, O'Reilly strode into Folsom Prison. Led to a small room, she took a seat across a table from Michael Albertson, who'd been an enraged alcoholic when his careening pickup slammed into the bicycle Danny O'Reilly, 43, was riding toward home in Sonoma.
In the prison room, Patty O'Reilly looked straight at Albertson, who is serving a 14-year sentence. Sparing no details, she recounted for him the horrors and sorrow he'd inflicted on her and her daughters, who were 12 and 7 when a deputy sheriff bearing grim news knocked on the door on the worst day of their lives.
O'Reilly, the proprietor of Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, set on the prison table the book she'd carried in. It was an album full of photos that told the story of the happy family that traced its beginning to the day she and Danny married in 1991, after having met in a dance class in San Francisco.
"I went through the whole album," she said. One picture after another caught free spirit Danny O'Reilly -- a dancer, cellist, guardian of the earth and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates marketing ace -- sharing a moment with his wife and their girls, Erin, who's now 21, and Siobhan, 16.
Inmate Albertson, then 48, wept. The Cobb resident, who'd lived a tormented childhood and was sober for 14 years before falling off the wagon and having a blow-up with his girlfriend shortly before the fatal drive, apologized repeatedly for what he'd done.
O'Reilly believes that his expressions of remorse were genuine and that the confrontation and conversation were arduous for him.
"For him to sit there . . . was a lot harder than just being in prison," she said.
That four-hour meeting at Folsom, inspired by the concept of restorative justice and arranged by the state's Victim-Offender Mediated Dialogue Program, happened six years ago, in 2006.
O'Reilly left feeling that true vengeance was served because her understanding of the origins of the word pertained not to eye-for-an-eye revenge but the bringing of a transgressor to full justice, nothing more or less.
O'Reilly, 47, said her long and emotional exchange with Albertson assured her that he grasps the horrific impacts of his actions and that he regrets and takes responsibility for them. She heard subsequently from a coordinator of the prison Mediated Dialogue program that Albertson told others on several occasions that the encounter was powerfully beneficial to him.
In fact, O'Reilly said, "Mike will say that I saved his life."
And it changed hers. She was so struck by the potential of restorative justice to help both the victims and perpetrators of crime to advance their lives that she became a volunteer in the victim-offender program at San Quentin.
She goes into the prison a few times a year to meet and speak with inmates as a surrogate victim. The services of surrogates are needed when offenders are willing to confront the challenge of dialogue, but the victims or survivors of victims don't wish to take part.
As a surrogate victim, O'Reilly talks with inmates about how the killing of her husband impacted her and her daughters, and about how the inmates are dealing with the crimes they committed and the pain they inflicted.
"They're very moved and very affected by us surrogate victims," O'Reilly said. "They can hardly wrap their heads around the fact that we would come in and be kind to them."
She added, "I have learned that people in prison are not monsters. Some are, but not all. Some of them are trying to do the right thing and turn their lives around."
O'Reilly believes she might never have discovered the value of restorative justice to people on both sides of a violent crime were it not for her younger daughter Siobhan (shah-VAHN). Not long after Albertson was sentenced to prison, the girl, then 8, drew a handmade note for him.
"You might be surprised," she wrote, "but I'm not mad at you."
Siobhan made a second card for Albertson nearly two years later, telling him, "I just wanted to make sure you know that I forgive you. I do still miss my dad; I think that's a lifelong thing. I hope you're feeling OK."
She also told him she would like to see him in person.
Until Siobhan's mother read the cards and pondered what to do with them, she figured her appearance at Albertson's sentencing hearing in a Santa Rosa courtroom late in 2004 was the last time she'd see him. But her inquiry about a possible prison visit led to her discovering restorative justice and the state prisons' new victim-offender program.
Eight years later, both mother and daughter are preparing to speak Nov. 17 at a Restorative Justice Memorial for Victims of Crime to start at 2 p.m. at Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
It's the first time Siobhan will speak publicly about the death of her father and her decision not to hate and wish the worst for the man who caused it.
Her mother may recount to the crowd how her greatest hope, since meeting with her husband's killer in prison, is that he will be a changed person unlikely to harm again once he gets out.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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