A Madison man whose careening SUV jumped a curb and struck and killed a UW-Madison student from China, only minutes after she last communicated by social media with her mother in Beijing, was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison.
Kong Vang, 33, of Fitchburg, told friends and colleagues of Wenxin “Wendy” Huai, 24, that he was sorry for what he did on April 15, 2017, and would forever think of her and the pain he caused her parents, who lost their only child that day.
“I took the life of an intelligent, caring young lady. I took the life of your daughter, your friend,” Vang said in a statement read by his lawyer, Eric Schulenburg. “I am the one that did this terrible thing and caused you this unimaginable pain, and I want you to know I’m sorry. I never thought I would become a killer. I was irresponsible. I will make sure I never take a life again. I will each day be thinking of her and wish to make up for my wrongs. I am truly sorry to everyone that I hurt.”
The courtroom was filled to capacity with Vang’s friends and family and with people who knew Huai. An overflow courtroom was set up with a video feed so that others, many of them members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, could watch the proceedings.
In December, Vang pleaded no contest to homicide by drunken driving, second-degree reckless endangerment and possession of methamphetamine for the crash, which happened as Vang, under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine, squealed around the corner from West Washington Avenue to South Park Street. His SUV jumped the curb and struck Huai and a friend, Haonan Ge, who was visiting from New York to congratulate Huai for finishing her master’s degree in economics, which she was to receive from UW-Madison the following month.
They had just been out for dinner at a restaurant on South Park Street.
“Frankly speaking, it’s hard for me to return to Madison and relive the terrible experience,” said Ge, who was struck on the leg and injured as he tried to push Huai out of the way of the SUV. He had met Huai while they were undergrads at Peking University in Beijing, he said.
“I still feel the deep pain and sense of loss when I think about the accident,” he said. “It is so terrible to realize that the pain will remain lifelong. I have no choice but living with the pain my whole life.”
Feeling Huai’s loss most acutely are her parents, Yingxia Yu and Junpeng Huai, who were unable to come to Madison to attend the sentencing hearing. But both wrote detailed letters telling Circuit Judge John Hyland about their daughter and what their lives have been like since losing her, and asking Hyland to deliver justice for her.
Yu, in a letter read in court by family friend Jing “Connie” Li, wrote that she had been planning to come to Madison in May 2017 to see her daughter, who after graduation was going to return to Beijing to live and work, and someday start her own family.
“I’m so regretful and feel so guilty that I was not with her at the last moment of her life,” Yu wrote in her letter. She described the sadness of going to her daughter’s apartment after her death and seeing everything left as her daughter had left it, including a Mother’s Day card she never got to send.
The day that her daughter died, Yu wrote, it was a sunny Sunday morning in Beijing, and as usual she checked for a message from her daughter on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.
“She sent me a photo of herself and said she was eating with a friend,” Yu wrote. “We chatted for a while on WeChat, then she said she would Facetime with me as soon as she returned to her dorm. I couldn’t imagine that only nine minutes later, my daughter was hit by a car rushing onto the sidewalk.”
Not yet aware of that, Yu expected a call from her daughter that never came, but instead got “terrible sad news of her passing away.”
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Hess, saying that Vang willingly “played Russian roulette” by driving under the influence, asked that Vang be sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by 15 years of extended supervision. Schulenburg asked for lesser time in prison.
Hyland settled on a round decade in prison, saying it was appropriate for the loss that Vang caused, not only to Huai’s family but to Vang’s own family. He said the sentence would still allow Vang to be reunited with his children while they were relatively young.
During earlier comments, Hyland choked up briefly and had to gather himself as he talked about the loss that Huai’s family suffered.
Once released from prison, Vang will be on extended supervision for six more years. Hyland also ordered Vang to pay $80,317 in restitution.