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.”