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'Don't remember me; remember my friends'

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news Bemidji, 56619
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Nearly three months after a driver fleeing a UND police officer struck her car at close to 100 mph, Katie Olson still needs crutches to get around.

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But the 22-year-old knows that despite her lingering injuries, she has two "guardian angels" watching over her as she goes back to school and work.

"My biggest motivation is making James and Tasha proud," Olson said.

Olson's friend, James Freestone, 21, and her roommate, Tasha Brenno, 19, were killed in the crash at Columbia Road and 17th Avenue South in Grand Forks. Another friend of Olson's who was riding in her car, Michael Badurek, survived the collision with minor injuries.

The four worked at Hugo's grocery store on Columbia a few blocks from the crash. Olson, who's already resumed her college classes, said she hopes to return to Hugo's in two to three weeks.

"I think going back to work will be harder because we all worked similar schedules," she said. "Tasha and I closed a lot together, and James was always there with me."

Olson sat down this week for an interview with the Herald, the first she's given since the crash. She said she's been trying to avoid the spotlight the incident has put on her.

"This isn't the greatest reason for people to want to know who I am," she said.

Olson would rather have the focus on Freestone and Brenno.

"Don't remember me," she said, "remember my friends."

'A good thing'

UND police said Celso Garza was stopped early June 5 at Columbia Road and University Avenue for running a red light. As an officer approached Garza's vehicle, Garza sped south on Columbia. His 1995 Chevrolet Lumina broadsided the car Olson was driving, a 2009 Pontiac G6, about a mile from the traffic stop. Police said Olson had the green light and that Garza was intoxicated.

Before the crash, Olson, Freestone, Brenno and Badurek went to University Park to take part in the Relay for Life cancer fundraiser. They drove Olson's mom home afterward. Olson remembers she and her friends had plans to get some food, but after that, her memory is blank.

"I guess that's probably a good thing," she said.

The crash killed Freestone on impact, and Brenno died later at Altru Hospital. Olson and Badurek were taken to Altru as well. Badurek was treated and released the same day, while Olson spent nine days recovering from a fractured vertebra, a cracked skull, a broken jaw and a chipped bone in her ankle.

She still has a plate in her jaw, but the only long-term concern is her ankle injury, which requires her to walk on crutches for now. "It could have to be fused," she said of her ankle. "I could be in pain for the rest of my life."

Sharing the news

In the hospital, Olson was given morphine to help her deal with the pain of her injuries. The drug left her groggy, but she still had questions about how she ended up there, said Olson's mom, Sandy.

"We didn't lie to her. I mean, if she asked a question, we answered it. We just didn't expound," Olson's mom said, adding that she wanted her daughter to heal some before telling her the full story.

The crash happened early on a Saturday, and it wasn't until the following Thursday that Olson's parents told her that Brenno and Freestone were dead.

"That's probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Olson's mom said.

Olson remembers crying after hearing the news and then falling asleep under the power of the morphine. She said her grieving continues, but with perspective.

"I have my good and bad days with it, you know, being that they were my friends. But they wouldn't want me to not live my life," she said.

Since Olson was driving at the time of the crash, her mom worried that her daughter would be blamed, even though she knew her daughter was not at fault. But no one has ever placed blame on Olson, her mom said.

To the contrary, she said her daughter has received strong support, particularly from Freestone's family.

"James' family is amazing," Sandy Olson said. "They found out that James had been killed in this accident, and at noon, (James' mom) was calling me to find out how Katie was doing."

Charges pending

Garza, the other driver in the crash, was treated and released from Altru Hospital the same day. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of homicide while fleeing an officer and two counts of assault while fleeing an officer, along with four misdemeanor charges. If convicted of all charges, the 24-year-old could face up to 63 years in prison.

Garza, of East Grand Forks, remains in custody. He is set for a pretrial conference Oct. 21.

Olson said she sometimes gets angry at Garza for what happened, but hasn't let that anger grip her. "At the end of the day, like, yeah, he took my friends but I don't know him," she said. "To me, he's just another person."

As might be expected, the crash has made her a vocal advocate of sober driving. "I was giving lectures in the hospital, saying if I ever hear you're drinking and driving, I'm never going to talk to you again," she said.

Since the crash, relatives of Brenno and Freestone have been maintaining a memorial at Columbia and 17th. In a similar vein, Olson said she plans to get a tattoo in memory of her friends.

"I guess if that's what she wants to do, there could be worse tattoos in this world," her mom said.

Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com.

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Pioneer staff reports
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