Sonoma teen faces the man who killed her father in DUI crash

Siobhan O’Reilly had imagined the scene since she was a kid. But now it was real.

The Sonoma Valley teen was inside a state prison and caught her first glimpse of the man who’d killed her father.

She asked to use a women’s room. “I had a moment of breakdown,” said O’Reilly, who’s 18 now and was 7 when a drunken and angry Michael Albertson slammed into her dad Danny, a cyclist and dancer, with his pickup on a Santa Rosa road.

Two weeks ago today, Siobhan O’Reilly cried and breathed deeply there in a restroom at the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo.

Her mind carried her back to when her dad was still alive and she’d had an accident while running, knocking out a front tooth and opening up a split on her top lip that required stitches. That night, her mother, Patty, and her father read to her from “China’s Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan.”

Bravest girl. “I kind of pulled myself together,” she said. She returned to the prison meeting room and to the woman who facilitates dialogue between willing inmates and crime victims or their survivors wishing to try to move past the ill feelings and make a human connection for the potential good of all concerned.

A second mediator and a correctional officer watched as inmate Albertson, a former resident of Cobb in Lake County, took a seat across a table from O’Reilly.

“It struck me that he looked different than what I’d imagined,” she said. An alcoholic who’d fallen off the wagon and had it out with his girlfriend that horrific day in April 2004, Albertson was taller and better fed than his visitor had pictured him.

“He looked rather like he was calm on the outside but anxious on the inside,” said the Sonoman, who looks precisely like the child of two dancers, wears her brown hair short and reads the world and a constant flow of books with large, brown eyes.

She extended her hand. The inmate, who has served 11 years and is due to be released on Friday, shook it.

“I thanked him for meeting with me,” O’Reilly said. She said he thanked her, too, then he said, “I just want you to know you’re safe here. I will not do anything to hurt you.”

O’Reilly, a former longtime home-schooler who plans to study at Santa Rosa Junior College following her graduation June 6 from Rohnert Park’s Credo High, had already felt perfectly safe.

“It was still nice to hear that,” she said.

Her face-to-face with Albertson would have happened a decade ago, when she was 8, if she’d had her way.

Her father, a blithe spirit who died while cycling home to Sonoma Valley from his marketing job at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates north of Santa Rosa, hadn’t been gone long when Siobhan O’Reilly surprised her mother by writing and drawing a card for Michael Albertson. Her message, “You might be surprised, but I’m not mad at you.”

She credits the culture of love and forgiveness in which her parents raised her and her older sister, Erin, for her desire to tell Albertson that though she missed her father terribly, she forgave him.

That gesture from an 8-year-old changed everything. It caused her mother, initially aghast that Siobhan would want to offer comfort to the killer, to examine whether she wanted to live her life bearing the ill will toward Albertson. She decided she did not.

Beyond that, the new perspective prompted Patty O’Reilly years ago to go into prisons and contribute to the healing of inmates truly committed to taking responsibility for what they had done and to resolving the issues behind their behavior. O’Reilly has volunteered as a surrogate victim, meeting with inmates at San Quentin State Prison in mediated sessions intended to help the offenders along on the path of empathy, self-honesty and healing.

O’Reilly also met, years ago, with Mike Albertson. He was at Folsom State Prison then. He wept as the widow opened a family photo album and showed him page after page of photos of the one life he’d ended and the three others he’d robbed of the love of an extraordinary man.

She made clear that although she wanted him to serve every day of his prison sentence, she did not hate him and wished him well. Albertson not only thanked her but told her that she’d saved his life.

None of that would likely have happened were it not for the gesture of forgiveness by Siobhan O’Reilly 10 years ago. The meeting at the prison near San Luis Obispo happened just weeks ago because it could not legally be arranged until she was 18 years old.

After Albertson assured her that she was safe, O’Reilly read to him from a favorite spiritual book she’d brought along, Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.”

“I tend to find a lot of comfort in books,” she said. She hoped Albertson might, too. She had intended to give him “The Prophet” but was told prison rules wouldn’t allow that right then and there.

O’Reilly told Albertson she wanted to know about his life.

“He began at the beginning,” she said.

“I don’t want to go into details of that because it’s his story. Suffice to say he did not live a particularly easy life.”

O’Reilly wanted also to hear from Albertson what happened on the day her father died.

“I wanted an accurate picture of April 19” of 2004, she said.

She said Albertson told her he didn’t remember everything, and she believes he was truthful about those parts of the fatal collision and the moments leading to and following it that he can recall.

“I did learn a lot,” she said. “He did go into as much detail as he remembered.”

The daughter of Danny O’Reilly added, “There were some things that were very hard to hear.” It hurt “hearing in more vivid detail than I’d ever heard before about the death of my father.

“But I appreciated it all the more that he told me.”

O’Reilly said Albertson shared with her that he became sober in prison and sponsored about 20 fellow inmates in Alcoholics Anonymous. She was gratified to hear that he’s actively affecting the lives of others in a positive way.

Aware that Albertson is about to be released back into society, she asked that he write a list of the names of at least five people he can call if he finds he needs help with staying sober, or other challenges.

“He wrote that down,” she said.

She recalled telling Albertson something about the quite difficult times in her life that followed the death of her father.

She assured him that she has largely come through them, she’s happy and she’s living her life. Though “there are still some days when it sucks, I told him I’m all right, I’m OK,” O’Reilly said. She was glad to perceive that he is OK, too.

Recently, O’Reilly completed and presented a senior project on restorative justice, which encompasses the type of dialogue in which she and Albertson engaged. The process seeks to allow offenders and victims or survivors to move forward, achieve some resolution and enhance the likelihood that the crime won’t be repeated.

O’Reilly said the visit with the man who killed her father worked for her and she hopes and trusts it was of value to Albertson.

She walked out of the prison smiling, she said.

“I was really glad that he had heard me and that I’d heard him.”

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