A STORY THAT DOESN’T HOLD UP, AND A SINGLE MISDEMEANOR CHARGE
The woman who hit Yijing Chen and Hongfen Shen, Nicole Herschel of Malibu, didn’t call 9-1-1. She didn’t hail another vehicle or yell for help from passersby. Instead, Herschel grabbed Yijing Chen’s mother by the wrists and dragged her inert body to the curb, dropping her there. Hongfen Shen did not move, was not breathing. Then Herschel got back into her truck, slammed it in reverse, and hastily parked along Las Virgenes Road.
When the authorities arrived, Herschel pretended to be a witness, lying to the police about her role. She said she had come upon the accident on her way to the grocery store. But she acted nervously, her answers were “evasive,” and police were suspicious. When they interviewed Chen in the hospital, she told them unequivocally that Herschel was no witness — she was the driver who had hit them. A few days later, seizing Herschel’s truck from a parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport, police noted the truck had recently been scrubbed clean — but that marks along its frame seemed compatible with Chen’s mother’s footwear.
Witnesses came forward as well, one saying he’d seen a woman dragging another woman toward the curb at the on-ramp to the Ventura Highway at Las Virgenes Road, another affirming that he’d seen a stopped pickup on the freeway on-ramp and a woman getting inside, then backing up against traffic to park along Las Virgenes.
The California Highway Patrol completed its investigation in July 2017 and identified Herschel as the driver, recommending three charges: misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter and tampering with evidence, and felony hit-and-run. But the Los Angeles district attorney’s office didn’t agree, only charging Herschel with the misdemeanor manslaughter charge, which carries a maximum sentence of one year. Prosecutors later said they charged only what they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
In November, Herschel, 36, pleaded no contest and was given the maximum sentence. She was then granted until late January 2018 to turn herself in.
SEEKING JUSTICE AMID A FOG OF GRIEF
Yijing Chen protested to prosecutors about the single misdemeanor charge, and she protested again to the judge when Herschel was sentenced to a year in county jail. In vain. “I have spoken with all prosecutors who handled my case,” she says. “They all thought the misdemeanor charge is not reasonable but they can do nothing.” Chen is now pursuing a civil case against Herschel, though investigators have found that Herschel is bankrupt and her insurance would cover only about $50,000 of Chen’s $140,000 hospital bill. Desperate, Chen is also pursuing a White House petition seeking justice, including more jail time for Herschel — though given the Trump administration’s silence on all petitions for the last 11 months and the news December 18 that the petition tool at the White House website will be temporarily removed until the new year, that is an avenue unlikely to achieve the desired result. If the accident had happened in China, Chen says, Herschel would have received at least three years in prison.
Since the time of the accident, Chen tells Poets&Quants, she has lived in a fog of grief and pain. Her psychological trauma was matched by her physical suffering. She needed a wheelchair for six months; she now has a rod in her leg, and still takes medication for pain and stiffness and to help her sleep. She took a year off classes, with Pepperdine Graziadio granting her an extension and financial support, but in that time she sank into a funk of bereavement. One classmate says she barely saw Chen because she shut herself away completely. Chen acknowledges her poor grasp of English made it difficult to confide in colleagues, and some of her closest Chinese friends have already returned home.
Like many universities, Pepperdine offers an array of options for students who are grieving. The school has a Counseling Center, and it gives wide latitude in the extension of programs, financial aid, and emergency housing options. For Chen, outside of her scholarship money, Pepperdine covered her remaining fees, she says, about $5,000. But though she was offered well-being counseling, spiritual counseling, or help from the school CARE support team, she declined them all. “After the accident, I locked myself in my room and I did not see my classmates at all, except a few staff from Pepperdine University,” she says. “Everything is pointless to me, only my friends who cooked for me and brought me foods could see me. Finding justice for my mum is the only faith which sustained my life. The school offered counseling and I did not take (it). I did not tell anyone about my pains and sufferings because I distain myself and I felt self-abasement.”
A NEWFOUND URGE TO HELP
Chen, now 27, remembers her mother’s sacrifice to help her family after her father became sick in the early 2000s. Hongfen Shen quit her job as a chemical engineer because she could earn more driving a taxi, working 18 hours a day to help take care of her ailing husband, who died of a heart attack in 2014, and to send her daughter to Singapore to get an undergraduate degree. It’s a model of sacrifice Chen says she hopes to follow now that her life has so drastically changed course.
Chen is scheduled to receive her MBA from Pepperdine in the spring. She no longer plans to become a financial analyst — now she wants to work for a maker of autonomous automobiles, “to save more innocent people from negligent drivers.” She has applied for some jobs and is awaiting a response. And though she had planned to stay in the U.S. for a few years before returning to China to live with and care for her mother, now, with no close relatives in her hometown, she expects to stay in the U.S. longer, depending on employment.
“I wanted so badly to give back to my mum,” Chen says. “I came to America in August 2015 on a scholarship to study for my MBA at Pepperdine University. I was so happy to be here, because this wonderful country was going to help me fulfill my dreams of being able to help provide for me and my mum. I have American dream, and I believe I could find it here. And then on Sunday, June 5, 2016, that all changed forever.”
Chen wants justice for her mother — but also for others who may experience similar tragedies. Her GoFundMe account is dedicated not just to pursuing a lawsuit against the driver who killed her Hongfen Shen, but to “establish a fund of justice for Chinese” and “utilize every penny to do meaningful things, either to my family or to the society. I want to change something!”
See a video of Yijing Chen’s story by CLICKING HERE.