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Crazed driver took away their perfect life

Ron Light suffered brain damage when a woman drove into him and his family.

Ron Light suffered brain damage in a 1989 crash caused by a woman who deliberately drove into him and his family. Light, 62, resides in an assisted-living home in Kansas. (Journal File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There were moments early on, Jane admits, when she wanted to end it all, to do in not just herself but those in her broken family who had survived being mowed down like weeds by a mentally disturbed motorist 25 years ago this week.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she says about the anguish after an evening stroll May 1, 1989, in her family’s Northeast Heights neighborhood turned deadly when a woman deliberately drove into them. The crash killed her daughter, Rachel, 6; left her son, Chris, 4, in a body cast; and cost her husband, Ron Light, the use of his legs, his right arm, his speech and parts of his brain.

It shattered Jane.

“I had plans to take Ron, Chris and myself out, finish the job,” she says. “It was just so very difficult.”

She didn’t. Something got her up each morning, kept her breathing, kept her stepping ever so slowly into the world again, one day, one hour, one moment at a time until, finally, 25 years have passed.

It’s hard to believe it’s been so long, she says.

Rachel Light was 6 when she was struck from behind by a car and killed while she was riding her bike May 1, 1989. (Journal File)

Rachel Light was 6 when she was struck from behind by a car and killed while she was riding her bike May 1, 1989. (Journal File)

Jane was Jane Light then, married for 17 years to Ron, a research project supervisor at Sandia National Laboratories, serigraph artist and the nicest, happiest man she had ever met. She was a paralegal-turned-stay-at-home mom, raising their two children in their cozy home on Shoshone NE.

Life, she says, was perfect.

“We reached a point in our lives where we couldn’t be happier,” she told reporters then.

Judith Ann Neely, it seems, couldn’t have been less happy. Neely, then a 41-year-old retired Navy lieutenant, was on the hunt for someone to kill that evening. She had just visited her dying mother, the only person she had left in the world. She was off one of two medications that had tempered her paranoid schizophrenia. She had a 1987 Chevrolet.

The Lights – Rachel on her new bike, the others walking alongside on the sidewalk in the 7100 block of Kiowa NE – were the first people Neely saw.

Jane still hears the car coming around the bend behind them. She still hears the engine gunning, the wheels screeching half on sidewalk and half on street, the horrific thumps, the screams, the silence.

She still sees her family bleeding on the ground. Rachel’s eyes were open. They blinked. Then, nothing.

“Is she dead yet?” Neely, handcuffed in a squad car moments later, asked police. “If she lives, I won’t go to prison.”

Judith Ann Neely

Judith Ann Neely, now 66, is serving a sentence of life plus plus 27 years at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants. (N.M. Department of Corrections)

Neely, 66, did go to prison. She is serving a life sentence plus 27 years at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants after jurors found her guilty but mentally ill of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated battery.

Jane told reporters at the time that she was too tired, too numb to think about the woman who took away her perfect life.

“I’m sure someday I’ll be horrendously angry, but I haven’t begun to think about her,” she said.

In the past 25 years, though, Jane has been angry plenty of times.

“I’ve always felt that, fine, she’s mentally ill,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you excuse it.”

She tries not to think much about Neely anymore.

Years ago, Jane tried to fix her old life. She tried to fix Ron. After he came home from nearly two years in rehab hospitals, she tried to care for him on her own, until she realized it was too big a task and gave her no time to help son Chris heal.

She advocated for more long-term facilities for brain-injured adults. In 1992, she opened the Four Corners LightHouse, a nonprofit group home in Albuquerque for men with brain injuries. Ron was one of the tenants.

But once he was settled, Jane says it was time to focus on her son – and herself. She and Chris moved to Durango, Colo., where no one knew what had happened.

“I realized that everybody in Albuquerque was treating us differently, like, oh, my gosh, you poor things, like we were contagious,” she says. “Chris deserved a more normal life than that.”

Jane Light was comforted by family and friends as Judith Ann Neely was pronounced guilty by an Albuquerque jury

Jane Light was comforted by family and friends as Judith Ann Neely was pronounced guilty by an Albuquerque jury for deliberately running over her and her family as they were out for an evening walk May 1, 1989. Since then, Light, 58, has remarried and is now Jane Schold, living in Durango, Colo. (Journal File)

She never planned to divorce Ron, but his parents, acting as his guardians, initiated divorce proceedings anyway in 1993, she says.

The LightHouse shut down years ago. Last year, Ron was moved to an assisted living facility in Kansas to be near a sister. Jane says she talks to him every week, tells him she loves him. The words do not come easy for Ron, but he is still the nicest, happiest man she has ever met.

Chris is 29, a public defender in Alamosa, Colo. He is engaged to a woman in Denver and hopes to move there in the near future. He then plans to take over his father’s guardianship and move him into a group home in Denver for adults with brain injuries.

“Chris had every right to be a total mess-up, but my gosh he has just done so well,” Jane says. “When he was little, he used to say he wanted to be Superman because Superman helps people. That’s what he has become. He helps people.”

As for Jane, she couldn’t fix her old life, but she could make another one. She is Jane Schold now, remarried, mother to another daughter, now 20. She is executive assistant to the Durango School District superintendent.

She still looks over her shoulder, still shudders at the sight of children on bikes. Every May 1 is hard. Still, she tries to focus on what she has, not on what she doesn’t, though what is gone, who is gone, is never forgotten. She goes on.

“I live with the pain every day, but you learn to incorporate that into your life,” she says. “You get to a level of contentment, a point where you feel fortunate again.”

Life is not perfect anymore. But it is perfect enough.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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