Bench removed from girl’s memorial site
A bench blocking the “Drive Safely” marker and makeshift memorial for 7-year-old Sarah-Dian Heineman has been removed.
The bench, owned by 25-year beekeeper Earl Russell of Russell Bee & Hornet Removal Service, was at the corner of Toledo Blade Boulevard and State Road 776 in Port Charlotte — the same location where the North Port girl was killed in a 2009 car wreck by an impaired driver.
Following a story in the Sun, “I removed it at 1:30 (p.m.) yesterday,” Russell said Tuesday. “I didn’t want any hard feelings with the family.”
For years, Sarah-Dian’s family has been placing mementos at the site of the crash. In February 2009, Rick Heineman was driving his two daughters home from the girls’ swimming practice in Port Charlotte when a truck driven by Ronald Judson Smith, then 24, ran a red light and struck their Mustang convertible just a few miles from the family’s North Port home. The car flipped several times. Rick was badly injured; older daughter Madison, then 9, also was hurt.
Sarah-Dian died 10 days later from her injuries.
Smith’s blood sample collected after the wreck revealed a cocktail of oxycodone, Xanax and marijuana. During his trial, jurors listened to testimony from eyewitnesses who claimed Smith removed a prescription medication bottle from his pocket and threw it into a wooded area near the crash scene immediately following the accident. The Port Charlotte man was sentenced to 30 consecutive years in prison on four charges, including 15 for DUI manslaughter.
“We would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Earl Russell from the Heineman and Baldizzi families,” said Janet Baldizzi, Sarah-Dian’s grandmother. “Through this we learned that Mr. Russell lost his wife to cancer and we are sorry for his loss. We lost our granddaughter at the hands of someone who was drugging and driving. We miss her dearly.”
Although the bench has been removed, Sarah-Dian’s family knows the Florida Department of Transportation will likely continue to remove the decorations they place near the Drive Safely marker.
FDOT maintains the right of way at the intersection.
The law allows for markers to be up for a year, but they are rarely removed. No additional decorations or makeshift memorials are allowed by the state because, FDOT officials say, they could become distractions to drivers, families could hit utility lines while installing crosses and other decorations, or they could turn into flying debris during bad weather. FDOT requires a permit for work done on rights of way, and installs the free “Drive Safely” markers for families on behalf of the deceased.
Despite the regulations, Sarah-Dian’s family creates a memorial area for her at the site during holidays, including a heart made of rocks. Christmastime saw a small metal tree, snowman a reindeer headband and stockings. At Easter, they added yellow and blue balloons and ribbon. On Valentine’s Day, they added a small balloon and a couple of heart decorations.
“On Tuesday, we put a scarecrow up to symbolize what would have been Sarah-Dian’s return to school and the fall,” Baldizzi said. “We also put a Barbie doll (there) because she loved dolls, and a tiara because she was a princess.
“I know the memorial could be taken down by FDOT. I will put more stuff up. I can be stubborn too.”
Russell said he relocated the bench, which is made out of recycled materials. Russell said he donates some of the proceeds from advertising on benches back to the Charlotte County community.