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Foss: Woman shares story of brother's death to save lives

Foss: Woman shares story of brother's death to save lives

Foss: Woman shares story of brother's death to save lives
Joe Klementowski was killed by a drunk driver in 1999.

Jean Karutis has been telling the same story for 18 years. 

It's a sad story, and time hasn't dulled the pain: When she tells it to me, she tears up, before taking a moment to compose herself and continue with her tale. 

The story begins with a concert ticket to see the alternative rock band R.E.M. at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sept. 8, 1999.  

That's where Karutis' older brother, Joe Klementowski, was headed when a drunk driver drifted into his lane, struck his car and killed him. He was 47 -- too old to be characterized as someone with his whole life ahead of him, but young enough that it was possible to imagine him living for decades more. 

Karutis shares her brother's story at victim-impact panels, to people convicted of drunk driving. She shows them pictures of her brother -- photos of him as an adult and also as a child -- and of the gruesome crash scene, of the mangled vehicle in which he breathed his final breaths. 

"Every time I do a panel I say, 'I can't do that again,'" Karutis told me, while seated in her office at Fulton County Community College, where she serves as associate dean for student retention and success. "The other side is that doing these panels has helped me heal." 

"My brother was a quiet guy," Karutis continued. "By doing these panels, I've kept him alive."  

I became interested in speaking to Karutis and hearing her story a few weeks ago, after writing about a controversial proposal to lower the blood alcohol level for drunk driving from .08 to .05 percent.

The topic got me thinking about the human cost of drunk driving, and the people whose lives are irrevocably altered by an encounter with a drunk driver. And it's a lot of people: According to the CDC, 29 Americans are killed every day by a drunk driver. 

Karutis' goal is to convey the damage drunk driving causes, to get people to think twice about getting behind the wheel the next time they've had one too many. 

If there's a reason she continues to put herself through the pain of retelling her brother's story to rooms full of strangers -- a typical victim-impact panel draws between 60-70 people -- it's because she believes doing so can save lives. 

"I try to keep it light," Karutis, 57, tells me. "I start by saying 'I'm not here to judge anyone, or to berate you. All I'm here to do is tell you a story. All I ask is that you open your heart.'" 

This is a different approach than the one Karutis took when she first started doing panels, in 2000. 

Back then, she was angry, and her speech reflected that. 

"I saw everyone [of the people at the panel] as murderers," Karutis said.

Considering what she and her family went through when her brother was killed, I don't blame her.  

But as time went on, and she saw some of the people who listened to her speak break down emotionally, her attitude changed. She said she realized that "we're not going to solve this problem by locking people up and being angry."

Karutis describes her brother as a nerd, whose big passion was music. 

He worked at Amsterdam High School as a custodian, and had a large LP record collection, with two copies of every album he owned, one that he listened to and another one still in its wrapper. He often went to concerts at SPAC, and was driving the back roads from his home, in Hagaman, to Saratoga Springs when he was struck on County Route 45 in Milton around 7:30 p.m. 

The collision "caused my brother's car to spin and land on someone's lawn," Karutis said, adding that when she gives talks, "I show a picture of his vehicle, of the driver's side and the blood on the seat." 

The driver who struck Klementowski had been drinking for several hours. 

It was, Karutis said, his third drunk driving incident, and his license had already been suspended. He was airlifted to Albany Medical Center with broken legs, and  when his BAC was finally taken, three hours after the accident, it was .22. 

"I remember physically doubling over," Karutis said, of the moment she learned her brother had died. "It was so unexpected, and I never thought somebody like my brother, who was very careful and very responsible - I never thought he would be killed like that." 

"It was the most devastating experience of my life." 

Karutis assumed that life would go back to normal after the man who killed her brother was sentenced for vehicular manslaughter. 

But it didn't. 

"I still felt empty," she said. 

That emptiness inspired her to start doing victim-impact panels -- work she is still doing today. 

She concludes her story with another concert ticket, to a Lenny Kravitz performance at SPAC on Sept. 11, 1999. Had her brother not been killed, he would have attended this show. 

"I found the ticket a few weeks [after he died], on his dresser," Karutis said. 

As I said, it's a sad story, about a life cut painfully short as a result of another person's poor choices. 

But it's a story we can all learn from, and a story that, while it might not change the world, might very well save a life. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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