Sunday, April 25, 1999

Two mothers with the same tragic story




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I wasn't going to do this. For one thing, Martha doesn't even live around here. For another, her story is 10 years old. We have newer tragedies to wring our hands over.

        But she sent a packet of stuff. Letters. Photographs. The one that really got to me was of Matthew when he was 3. He had just learned to wink.

        “He was so proud of himself that he had to giggle,” she wrote on the photocopy of her son. Matthew Keith Christian was laughing gleefully with his chubby little hand over his mouth. Another photo was his first-grade portrait. Self-conscious, hair carefully parted in front, cowlick in back. His front teeth, new ones, fit better with the more grown-up face of Matt in his Boy Scout uniform.

        She really pulled out all the stops. She even sent a copy of the prayer read at his memorial service.

        It didn't make sense to her, she said, that the man who had killed her son in Virginia was set free to kill somebody in Hamilton County, Ohio.

Through the loophole
        Martha said the man convicted of smashing into her 22-year-old son on Interstate 95 in Virginia 10 years ago was a drunk driver. She told me his name is Mark K. Putnick and that he served 22 months in a county jail.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said, “Putnick might slip through a loophole.” Through a loophole and out the door in five years or less.

        Monday morning, prosecuting attorney Mark Piepmeier will try to persuade a judge to allow Matthew's death to be presented as part of the case against Mark Putnick. There will be another mother in the courtroom that day. This mother does live around here — in Preble County.

        And her story is new, raw. Beverly Trader's son was killed on New Year's Day. Police say Timothy Trader, who had just turned 21, died when Mr. Putnick rammed his Dodge van into the back of a parked Chevrolet Blazer. “He admitted to having five beers,” Mr. Allen said. A grand jury indicted the 43-year-old man on involuntary manslaughter charges.

        Mr. Piepmeier says a “poorly worded” Ohio law may not allow him to charge Mr. Putnick as a second offender because his conviction occurred out of state.

        “That's outrageous,” Martha said.

        Mr. Piepmeier says he will do his best. If he's allowed to argue that Mr. Putnick is a repeat violent offender, a conviction could mean 18 years in prison. “If not, the maximum would be five years,” the prosecutor said.

Anguished conversations
        Martha and Beverly have talked together about their sons. Both boys loved music and the outdoors. Matthew turned 17 on a mountaintop, and Tim went on his first backpacking trip last November.

        About this time of year, Beverly would begin to hear the sound of Tim bouncing a basketball off the backboard. He lived right across the street, and she could see his “smirky little smile” almost every day.

        “Mr. Putnick's life belongs to God,” Beverly says. “I don't want to make any judgments against him.” But she surely does miss her boy.

        “We wrote letters to the judge in Virginia,” Martha said, “begging him not to let this man kill someone else.”

        But the drunken driving laws in this country are peculiarly forgiving. And certainly not standardized.

        So, if a jury of Mr. Putnick's peers in Hamilton County, Ohio, is asked to decide whether he should be punished, they may never get to hear about the Virginia boy who was a “good” baby and whose first-grade teacher called him “the sweetest little boy I ever taught.”

        But his mother wanted someone to know about him.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she can be heard WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE