Editor’s note: Jails are filled with people who have committed crimes that ended tragically in ways the perpetrators never intended. Drunken or distracted driving accounts for thousands of deaths each year. For those involved, the consequences are far reaching, often with overwhelming guilt on the part of the person who was driving drunk. For some, it marks a turning point in their lives, and they begin the long process of dealing with their addiction and building a better life. This is the first in a two-part series of one Hoisington man’s story.
Hoisington’s newest city council member, Robert W. Bruce, wakes up every day with something to prove.
He spoke candidly about his past recently, shedding some light on reports that came out during his run in the spring election for the seat he now holds. His rival, incumbent Brian Wilborn, won the election in April, but in July announced he would need to step down as his family would be moving out of Ward 4.
The council chose to have interested parties apply for the seat, and Bruce was given a second chance. At the July 25 city council meeting, four applicants had applied, and Bruce was one of two who attended the meeting.
At that meeting, Councilwoman Karen VanBrimmer nominated him, noting that he had attended every meeting since the election, and by doing so had indicated his interest in serving.
A letter of support from a part-time Hoisington Police Officer, Don Doerschlag, was also mentioned. Council member Travis Sinn seconded her nomination, and the council approved it.
Soon after, reminders of the tragedy Bruce had caused 14 years earlier once again surfaced as revealing remarks left on The Great Bend Tribune’s Facebook page. Bruce agreed to talk about what happened, and how it has shaped his life and compels him now to serve the community he now calls home.
“I have never pretended to be someone that I am not,” he said. “I’ve never tried to hide my past. I will answer any questions anyone has.”
Outing turns to tragedy
On June 11, 2002, details about the early morning accident at Cedar Bluff Reservoir that led to the drowning death of a 3-year-old boy were reported in the Hays Daily News. Bruce and his then girlfriend, Teresa Owen, were driving with seven children in their car around 1:45 a.m., in search of a group of friends.
Initial reports indicated Teresa was the driver, but it was soon after revealed that Bruce had been the one to drive the vehicle off a marked boat ramp and into the water. The adults were able to get out, and attempted to free the children with the help of nearby fishermen.
But one boy, Teresa’s son, was still missing. His body was several feet from the vehicle, and was pronounced dead at Trego County-Lemke Memorial Hospital where he was taken.
The memory of what was lost is something that Bruce and his now wife, Teresa, will carry with them always, he said. Prior to the accident, Bruce had been in jail twice for DUI infractions. People who cared about him warned him his lifestyle was going to catch up with him. He refused to listen.
“I’ve had people who were concerned about me and the road I was going down, and I’d never listen to them,” he said. When he found himself in custody on charges of second-degree murder, with a string of other lesser charges, one good friend came to his aid. The friend bonded him out of jail, putting $10,000 on a credit card. That belief in him meant a lot. Because of it, Bruce was able to attend the child’s funeral.
“I promised my boy, looking into his casket, that I would quit drinking, and I would never break that promise, and if I do it means he lost his life for nothing,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
After 10 months, Bruce said, he was offered a plea bargain, one which he almost did not accept. If he would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, the second degree murder charge and many of the lesser charges would be dropped.
But Bruce held out for a promise that no charges would be brought against Teresa, for her initial statement that she had been driving the vehicle.
“The authorities asked me why I felt so strongly,” he said. “I asked them, what can you do to her that is worse than what I have already done? There Is nothing worse than what I’ve already done — I took her son from her.”
With that, he went home, expecting to go to trial on the higher charges. But he received a call shortly after from his lawyer, telling him to turn around and come right back.
No charges would be filed against Teresa. Bruce would serve time, both at Lansing and Hutchinson, and would be required to register as a violent offender per state statute, for a duration of 15 years ending on Oct. 10, 2020.
“Prison was the best thing that happened to me,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be now if I hadn’t gone to prison.”
Sitting in prison, Bruce had time to realize where his life had been and where it should be going.
“I’ve changed so much, and a lot of that is for years I missed out on a lot of things with my kids,” he said. When the wreck occurred, his wife at the time had a new baby. “I went to prison, and I missed out on him crawling and saying daddy. For the first three years of his life he didn’t know me, and I can’t ever get that back.”
Bruce stopped drinking. He learned quickly that his lifestyle had to change. That included the places he went, the people he hung out with, and the things that he talked about. It was a big change.
In prison, his relationship with his mother grew stronger, he said. This was new, as they weren’t close prior to the accident.
“My dad can’t travel much, but my mom was my rock when I was there,” he said. “She was there every two weeks, and sent me letters.”
Initially, he served time at Lansing Correctional Facility. His mother worked nights at the hospital in La Crosse, completing her shift at 10 p.m. She would drive all night to Lansing every two weeks for a two hour visit in the morning. In between visits, she would send letters. For Bruce, it was humbling, and he began to see how the choices he made in his life affected others.
Eventually, he was transferred to the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. There, Bruce was fortunate to be assigned to a guard who made a difference in his life.
“In the prison setting, there are corrections officers who are just there to earn a paycheck, and then there are those who care and try to help,” he said. He was assigned an outside detail called specialty crew. They did community service for different organizations including distributing commodities. The guard overseeing him was different than the rest. “He treated everyone with respect, like we were still humans, not just inmates.”
He would read the Bible while the inmates ate their sack lunches. If they had a hard time, he would listen and offer advice, even pray with them.
“It hit me that there really are people out there that care about us and don’t want us coming back,” Bruce said. He finished his last nine months in a work release program. He went on to serve his more than five years probation which he agreed to as part of his plea agreement. Occasionally, he said, he runs into that guard when he’s around the Hutchinson area, and thanks him for treating him well.
A few months after being released, Bruce’s brother was killed in an automobile accident in Barton County.
“It really hit home that I had to straighten my life out, because you don’t know what tomorrow brings,” he said.