Rochester family asks for public’s help with donations for memorial after fatal crash

(ABC 6 News) – Nearly three years after her death, the family of a Rochester teen struck and killed by a drunk driver is asking for the public’s help into turning her place of death into a hopeful and powerful memorial.

Erika Cruz, 18, was killed by a drunk driver in February of 2021.

RELATED: Driver charged in crash that killed an 18-year-old woman changes plea to guilty

Sterling Haukom, 35, was charged with criminal vehicular homicide and was sentenced to eight years in prison after crashing into Cruz with a blood alcohol content level three times the legal limit.

The typical sentence in a vehicular homicide case is four years in prison. However, the state asked that Haukom’s sentence be doubled, saying his crime was worse than others of the same charge.

RELATED: Olmsted judge rules that Haukom could face unusually high sentence

While the edge of Lincoln Elementary School holds so many emotions for Erika’s family being the spot that she was killed, they are hoping to change that and they are asking for help.

Cruz was known throughout the Rochester community for her empathy, her compassion and her heart.

“A beautiful woman with a big heart wanting to help people,” Erika’s dad, Rene, said. “She was an amazing person, that’s all I can say.”

It was a life taken too soon.

The Cruz family, nearly three years later, is still overwhelmed with grief.

“Without her it has been very difficult, very difficult times, and it is something that you have to carry for the rest of your life,” Rene said.

Multiple walls in the Cruz’s home are filled with memorabilia of Erika, including pictures, letters and paintings.

“It’s just nice to see all these photos of her but at the same time, it’s all we have left of her which is really hard to think about,” said Omar, Erika’s brother.

Those that loved Erika are doing all that they can to remember her.

Ace Athletic Gym, where Erika worked and exercised, painted a mural in the building in Erika’s honor.

“She’s not here physically, but what we can do is put something up to leave a memory and hopefully that impacts people going forward,” said John Meyer, the owner of Ace Athletic Gym.

Erika’s vigil, just one week following her death, was filled with hundreds of people mourning her death and the future that was stolen from her.

“After that vigil in the weeks that followed, I just had it in my head that we had to do something as a community to honor Erika and her memory and the special person that she was,” said Sara Schmoll, one of the Cruz’s neighbors.

Erika’s family, alongside her aunt Leny Velez and Schmoll, now want to change the sign that has brought them to tears all of this time into one of hope.

They hope to raise money to put a memorial bench for Erika at the very spot she died alongside Lincoln Elementary School, just blocks from Erika’s home.

“From now and for years to come, we want for those who knew her to have a place to remember her and for those that didn’t know her, to get to know her,” said Velez.

The bench is designed to showcase a picture of Erika as well as a message to the community to stop drinking and driving.

“We lost our daughter and stuff like that could be preventable,” said Rene. “Hopefully, by having that bench there, it will bring memories to people of what we have to do together as citizens to prevent this from happening to other people.”

Schmoll and Velez hope to make this bench a reality for the Cruz family.

“None of us knows how long we have here and for Erika, it was 18 years and it was a beautiful 18 years, but my encouragement is that people walking by the bench to be encouraged to love the people in their lives just a little bit better,” said Schmoll.

“That’s what Erika would have wanted,” added Velez.

Erika’s family hopes that everyone who walks by the bench will take a moment to think about Erika, read about the kind of person she was and hold those you love a little tighter.

Erika’s mother, Marcela, says she wants the community to remember a quote that weighs heavy on her heart: “I loved you your whole life. I’ll miss you for the rest of mine.”

If you are interested in helping the Cruz family and donating to Erika’s memorial, click here for the GoFundMe page.