Mary Beth and Tom Hacke are preparing to lobby against parole for Vaughn Mathis, who is in prison for the 1997 killing of their 1-year-old son Ryan.
Ryan Hacke, left, and his brother, Matthew, who was 3 in 1997 when he witnessed Ryan’s killing.
By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Out of nowhere, the bullet blasted through the windshield, grazing Tom Hacke's cheek as it tore through the car.
On Jan. 11, 1997, Mr. Hacke was bringing his two young sons home from a visit at his parents' house in Munhall and had just pulled away from a gas station near Hays Street at West Eighth Avenue in Homestead after stopping to fill up.
"I look up and I realize that there's someone standing there with two hands holding a gun pointed in my direction. ... [He] just started to open fire. Just kept firing away," Mr. Hacke said. "I was hollering back to my children to duck. ... I was trying to figure out how to get out of there."
It was already too late.
"Ryan was sitting in the middle right behind me and it was just horror," said Mr. Hacke, 52. "I see it a lot."
A 9 mm bullet fired by Vaughn Mathis, then a 22-year-old from Wilkinsburg with an extensive juvenile criminal record who was free on bail after his arrest in connection with a rape case, had hit 14-month old Ryan Hacke in the head as he sat in his car seat. The toddler died two days later after he was disconnected from a respirator.
"You plan for your future with your kids, all those little things. And in an instant it ended. Just gone. So it's never normal," said his wife, Mary Beth Hacke, 51, who was seven months' pregnant with the couple's third child and driving a separate car ahead of her husband when the shooting happened.
The Hackes have organized a website and online petition to lobby the state Board of Probation and Parole against any parole for Mathis, who is serving a 17 1/2- to 43-year sentence for multiple convictions, including involuntary manslaughter in Ryan Hacke's death.
According to Sherry Tate, a spokeswoman for the board, his earliest possible release date is July 23 and he is "tentatively scheduled to be interviewed for parole in March."
The Hackes also plan to testify in person next week before the board members, a new process made possible by Act 14, a law signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last year.
Previously, victims were allowed to submit a recorded statement or video to the board or give a written or oral testimony to a hearing examiner but not address the board directly, said Jennifer Storm, who heads Pennsylvania's Office of the Victim Advocate.
The Hackes enlisted the help of a family friend to create www.justice4ryanhacke.com and they say nearly 6,900 people have since signed the website's online petition urging the board to deny any early release for Mathis.
Ryan, who would now be 18, never got to his meet his younger siblings: Tyler, 16, and Sarah, 14. He would have been a high school senior this year and would have been waiting for college acceptance letters, Mrs. Hacke said.
Ryan's older brother, Matthew, who was 3 when his brother was shot and is now a 20-year-old student at Fordham University in New York City, grew up in a household shattered by grief.
"When he was 9, he'd wake up in tears saying, 'If I was as big as I am now I could help Ryan duck.' That's hard as a parent," his mother said. "It's a different phase of grieving, but you're always grieving. That never goes away. It's right under the surface."
The ending of Mathis' 1997 trial stunned prosecutors and the Hacke family when the jury delivered an involuntary manslaughter verdict instead of the murder conviction the Allegheny County district attorney's office had sought. Prosecutors said Mathis fired nine shots at a teenager who had just gotten out of a van near the gas station. Mathis claimed he wasn't the only one shooting and that his pistol discharged accidentally as he pulled it from his pocket. The other shots were fired into the air to scare the teens who were firing at him, he testified.
The couple says they are prepared to spend the next 26 years fighting to make sure Mathis, now 39, serves every day of his sentence.
"As a mother, my kids come to me, like, 'Mommy will fix it. She'll take care of it. She'll do whatever to make it right,' " Mrs. Hacke said. "Ryan's not here, but I'll always be his mom and it's my job to make it right for him. No one fights harder than a mom or dad when it comes to your child."
Neither William H. Difenderfer, the lawyer who represented Mathis at his trial in 1997, nor Mathis' relatives could be reached.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.
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