May 20, 2013

Tunnel Vision: The Personal Purgatory of Kevin Tunell

by Clint Archer

tunnelIn the early hours of Friday, January 1, 1982 the seventeen-year-old Kevin Tunell made the biggest mistake of his life. At a New Year’s party near Washington DC, he got very drunk; his friends urged him not to drive but he insisted, “Nothing will ever happen to me.” On the road, he lost control of the wheel, and smashed into another car, instantly killing eighteen-year-old Susan Herzog. After pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and drunk driving, Tunell was sentenced to three years probation and one year of community service.

But Susan’s parents, understandably, didn’t feel that this was sufficient punishment. They sued him in civil court for emotional distress, for $1,500,000.

Then quite unexpectedly, after meeting Kevin, Susan’s parents offered to settle out of court. The terms of the ruling included an amount of $936, one bizarre condition:

The settlement required that Kevin pay the $936 by sending them a check for $1 made out to the deceased Susan Herzog, every Friday for the next eighteen years—one for every year Susan had been alive.

The penalty seemed like he had been let off easy, but soon the burden of guilt proved too much for Kevin to bear. He tried to present the Herzogs with two boxes of pre-written checks, dated each week through 2001, a year longer than required. The couple refused to accept them. accused

After seven Sisyphean years of the weekly purgatorial ritual, Kevin began to miss a few payments. The Herzogs promptly dragged him back into court. Giving an account before Judge Jack Stevens, a teary Tunell admitted that the agonizing guilt he felt each time he filled in Susan’s name had become unbearable.

You get to a point where you kind of snap—and you say, it hurts too muchI used to, like, lie in bed, and if I heard … noises, I used to think Susan was going to come to visit me.”

He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Susan’s dad, Lou said:

Susan’s death is there every waking moment. But every time we don’t get a check, there’s only one thing that comes to our mind: He doesn’t remember.”

The Herzogs insist that their insistence is not vindictive retribution. Susan’s mother, Patty explained,

We do want him to remember, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want him to accept it and get on with his life.”

Interesting. That’s reasoning that Dostoyevsky could have used for a provocative sequel to Crime and Punishment.

sysaphusNaturally, I feel deeply for the grief of the parents who mourn the loss of their precious daughter. I can’t imagine their pain. But there is a part of me that shudders to think of what it must have been like for Kevin to relive the unshakeable regret so frequently. I can’t imagine what my own life would be like if my sins were held before me on such an incessant and recurring basis. The tunnel vision of focus on sin with no relief of basking in mercy, would leave me a basket case.

What a blessing it is to know that, though there are consequences in this life for our sins, mistakes, and weaknesses, there is the promise of an afterlife with no remembrance of our sin to haunt us.

Consider these four glorious passages, which I trust will bless you this week, and help you be forgiving to others.

Rom 8:1  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

1John 1:9  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Col 2:13  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Ps 32:1  Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2  Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

May we cultivate tunnel vision, fixating on the grace we need, focussing on the cross of Calvary.

Update: Kevin Tunell actually contacted me after reading this post, and filled in some of the details: The agreement of the settlement was actually the full cash value of his parents insurance policy (a sizable amount of money), as well as the agreement that he would send them the $1 check for 18 years. I also found out that Kevin has spent countless hours telling his story to teenagers in an effort to help prevent others from making the same choices he did. He supports the use of his story to help make a difference in society, especially to educate those about the dangers of drunk driving


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
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  • Shelley

    Reading the article reminded me of Psalm 103:11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
    12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

    • HomeschoolontheCroft

      Beautiful. We were singing the psalm at morning worship today. What a wonderful salvation God has wrought for His people.

    • Amen. That is a magnificent Psalm, extolling our majestic God for His forgiveness.

  • Esther Starr

    Wow. I know I need to examine my own heart to be sure I wouldn’t feel exactly the same way as the parents in that situation. And yet it seems like a form of torture. I believe in justice, but this goes beyond justice.

    • On both sides of the story are people who need to examine their hearts, and we the observers should too.

  • A jarring glimpse at eternal separation from God..

    • One shudders to imagine.

  • John_D_11

    Wow, great post Clint, set off some thoughts in a number of directions for me. You and the commenters so far generally seem to think these parents were out of line for stickin it so hard to Kevin, and from a gospel sense I get that, but in another sense I think there is some spiritual health in a deeply burdened conscience, whether it’s Paul or John Newton or Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov. All murderers with deeply burdened consciences who can’t seem to erase their sins from the forefront of their minds but are constantly driven to the cross for deep gulps of Amazing Grace. Gosh, I just wonder what it would do for my appreciation of the gospel – for forgiveness – if I had to write a weekly check to pay for my sins in an earthly sense but could know they were already paid for in a heavenly sense. I would be writing a lot of checks, but who knows, I might also write some hymns like Amazing Grace.

    • HomeschoolontheCroft

      Well said, John.

    • I certainly don’t think they were out of line. In fact the original $1.5mill ruling would have been unbearable in its own way, for a 17 year old kid to have on him for the rest of his life. I feel for both parties, but for different reasons.

  • John_D_11

    BTW, and about 87% off topic, 13% on topic, what do you make of the proliferation of murder mystery TV shows that are out there? Every network seems to have their version of a one hour “Guy found dead, get some clues, use some cool gadgets, oh it’s not this guy surprise it’s actually that guy who killed him” TV show. Americans just seem to have some fascination with murder and justice, I can’t put a finger on why? Is murder just the last sin we can all agree is wrong so that’s the only thing screenwriters can base a plot conflict on?

    • I think TV watchers love the idea of the justice being served and the bad guy getting caught. Those shows give the viewer a sense of working with the law to bring the bad guy down, which generates a feeling of satisfaction. If reality can’t provide it as often as it should, at least Hollywood can. That’s my take on it.

    • I think the reason for murder mysteries is because unlike most crimes, there is no way that a murder victim can help with the investigation.

      • Mmm. You’ve obviously never seen Ghost.

  • HomeschoolontheCroft

    Wow… this is heart-wrenching stuff. I do feel for the young lad (who wasn’t so young by the time his 18yr ordeal was over), but the parents lost their daughter *forever*, and she lost her life *forever*.

    To drive when you’re that drunk is inexcusable. I’m not so sure the parents were wrong to ask for this. Surely it’s good to make folks (and ourselves) confront our sins and accept their *awe*fulness.

    Of course, the Gospel is the only answer to true guilt. But forgiving a person’s sin before God isn’t the job of the courts.

    • I agree. As I said in another comment, just imagine how unbearable the $1.5 million ruling would also have proven for a 17 year old. I just used the story as a picture of what it could be like for us if God were not so merciful to make a way to forgive us through Christ.

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  • Michael

    If the judge had come up with $1 per week punishment, would we think of it differently?

    • Good question. Would you?

  • busdriver4jesus

    Awesome! Obviously the best case scenario is the “unbearable guilt” driving him to Christ, but what a great idea in a society that believes any crime can be atoned for with money.

    • A spiritual application would be people who think they can atone for their sins by doing various penance.

  • DelawareMom

    How ironic, yet appropos that you used the word “purgatory” in your title, because “What a blessing it is to know that, though there are consequences in
    this life for our sins, mistakes, and weaknesses, there is the promise
    of an afterlife with no remembrance of our sin to haunt us.” is not entirely true. Think of a child who breaks a lamp. The parent pays to replace the lamp, but the child is still chastised–maybe has to stand in the corner, or do extra chores. It’s the same with Christians. While Christ paid the price for our sins, we still need purification. Of course once we enter into paradise, our sins will no longer haunt us.
    “The doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been part of
    the true faith since before the time of Christ. The Jews already
    believed it before the coming of the Messiah, as revealed in the Old
    Testament (2 Macc. 12:41–45) …Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for eleven months after the death of a loved one, they pray a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification. ”

    • Thanks for reading CGate Delawaremom, but I’ll have to respectfully disagree with your view. The problem with the doctrine of purgatory that it has no Scriptural basis whatsoever, and that it contradicts many, many passages in the New Testament that make it clear that at death a believer is instantly in paradise (Lk 23:43), with Christ (2 Cor 5;8), fully forgiven without chastisement (Rom 4:4-8), with no condemnation (Rom 8:1) yet to be atoned for.

      Heb 9:25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
      28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

      • DelawareMom

        I do not see the Bible passages you quoted as a blanket statement for everyone. Not everyone has to suffer purgatory, but also not everyone gets into heaven from the first minute after their death. Some have minor unforgiven sins–not enough to separate them from God’s grace permanently, but enough to warrant some further purification. (If your child comes home for dinner all dirty after playing, you’ll still let him come in to sit at the family dinner table, but you’ll clean him up first.) In Luke 23:43, we don’t know the state of the man’s soul. Maybe Jesus thought that the criminal’s crucifixion was enough to expiate the man’s sins. Sometimes people suffer their “purgatory on earth”, as is often the case with people who suffer long terminal illnesses.

        The concept of an after-death purification from sin and the consequences
        of sin is also stated in the New Testament in passages such as 1
        Corinthians 3:11–15 and Matthew 5:25–26.

        • I would say we should agree to disagree on this ma’am. But first, I’d like to recommend a book that explains those passages in a context of eternal rewards and loss of rewards. “The Preacher’s Payday” by Clint Archer. Worth the read 🙂

  • I can only imagine the weight of guilt. Yet, I must ask…after having been contacted by Kevin, do you know if he has come to trust the Lord Jesus and feel that weight of sin removed? Does he know what it is like to be forgiven by Christ? Thanks.

  • Loriann S.

    My husband and daughter were nearly killed by a drunk driver. Both have permanent injuries. My sweet, then 14 year old baby girl sustained a traumatic brain injury. The hell of the past 3 years cannot be underestimated. And TBI never goes away. My husband is titanium through and through, bearing his pain daily with grace. The man who hit my family is in prison, leaving his 2 young kids with no dad. All of this is swimming in the fall…But we did, and continue to forgive the man who drove drunk. Because one more nightmare, the nightmare of unforgiveness, won’t fix the first. And as hard as it is, Jesus said we must. Sometimes that’s all there is…the obedience of putting one foot in front of the other, looking to the day when every tear will be wiped away. The sovereignty of God is weighty stuff.

    • Wow, what a testimony, Loriann. I’m encouraged to hear you are clinging to God’s sovereignty in all that. The curse and the unspeakable suffering it brings is what makes us long for heaven. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

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