Former trooper seeks restoration of driving privileges nearly 16 years after fatal crash

Former trooper seeks restoration of driving privileges nearly 16 years after fatal crash

By BETH HUNDSDORFER 
Capitol News Illinois 
bhundsdorfer@capitolnewsillinois.com 

For years, former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White blocked attempts by an ex-state trooper to regain his driving privileges after a high-speed crash that caused the deaths of teenage sisters on a busy St. Clair County interstate in 2007.

But after White’s retirement, Matt Mitchell is taking another shot.

Mitchell has not applied for reinstatement of his driver’s license since 2014, when White rejected his hearing officer’s recommendation that Mitchell’s license be reinstated. White didn’t believe Mitchell made a convincing case, a spokesperson said, adding that as an elected official, it was White’s responsibility to make the decision.

When a fatality is involved in a driving offense that leads to revocation, a formal hearing must take place before an individual can have their driving privileges reinstated, according to secretary of state spokesperson Henry Haupt. A hearing officer presides at a formal hearing where testimony and evidence are presented, then issues a recommendation to the secretary of state’s office. The secretary’s office can either accept or deny that recommendation.

The secretary of state’s office declined to release Mitchell’s latest petition, so it’s unclear if the evidence he presents at his Sept. 20 hearing will be different from what was presented in prior hearings.

Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who took office in January, will have the ultimate say on the reinstatement, but his spokesperson declined to comment on the matter prior to the hearing.  

“Providing an answer to this question would be premature and inappropriate at this time – before the hearing is even held,” Haupt said in an email response to questions about Giannoulias’ position.

Mitchell, then an 8-year veteran of the Illinois State Police, was on patrol the day after Thanksgiving in 2007 on Interstate 64 east of St. Clair Square Mall when he heard a radio call for an accident. While he was responding to that call, Mitchell said that a white car cut him off, causing him to lose control. He crossed the median, sending his squad car airborne before it struck Jessica Uhl’s Mazda 3 head on, causing it to catch fire. Uhl, 18, and her sister Kelli Uhl, 13, who was a passenger in the car, were pronounced dead at the scene.

A state police investigation revealed Mitchell was traveling at 126 mph when he received a phone call from his girlfriend. In addition to talking on his personal cell phone, the investigation found Mitchell was “diddling with his computer while traveling at top speed immediately prior to the crash,” according to a written report. Witnesses later gave contradictory accounts to reporters and then investigators, saying they did not see any car cut Mitchell off.

The investigation also found that emergency services were already on the scene of the original accident where Mitchell was heading.

Mitchell was charged and pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and two counts of aggravated reckless driving in connection with the crash. Those convictions triggered the revocation of Mitchell’s driver’s license.

But three days later, at a civil trial, Mitchell testified that he lied during the criminal hearing and said an encroaching vehicle was at fault. While he acknowledged that he was on his phone and using his computer, he said that he was “trained to multitask.” In those civil claims, the state paid more than $8.5 million to the Uhl survivors and another couple who were injured in the crash.

Mitchell, who had been relieved of his duties after the crash, resigned from the state police in 2010.

Before the crash that killed the Uhl sisters, Mitchell was involved in at least seven prior crashes, including one that resulted in a $1.7 million civil judgment against the state. Mitchell admitted to looking at his computer for a split second before crashing into the rear of another car stopped at a light.

Neither Mitchell nor his attorney, J. Israel Slone, a former secretary of state hearing officer, returned calls or emails for comment.

Kim Schlau and Brian Uhl, Kelli and Jessica Uhl’s parents, continue to oppose the restoration of Mitchell’s driving privileges. The Uhl sisters had just left their father’s house after a holiday photo shoot when the crash occurred. Brian Uhl passed the accident on his way to work, but the car was unrecognizable and covered in a tarp.

“I knew that he would start again. It’s been eight years since the last hearing, but we can never close the book on this. We still aren’t done,” Schlau said.

After the accident, Schlau became involved in the group Below 100, a non-profit that looks to end preventable line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries of police officers. Since 2019, she said she has offered training to every Illinois State Police cadet class.

“I think this is an important way to honor Kelli and Jessica and make sure that they didn’t lose their lives in vain,” she said.

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.   

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