A fathomless family tragedy
Joplin community healing after deaths of child, grandpa
By Allen Palmeri
March 22, 2005
JOPLIN – On July 30, 2004, a drunk driver killed 69-year-old James Dodson and his 7-year-old granddaughter, Jessica Mann, as they were coming back from their mailbox along Missouri Highway 86.
“Jim bent over to talk to her and was holding her hand when they were hit,” said Mike Mann, a member of First Baptist Church, Joplin, who broke down several times in anguish as he told The Pathway about the deaths of his father-in-law and daughter.
Mann’s 5-year-old son, Steven, witnessed Edward Meerwald, a driver with a blood alcohol content level of .202, or nearly three times the legally recognized level of intoxication, kill his sister and grandfather. Meerwald, 50, was sentenced March 11 to the maximum 14 years in prison on two counts of involuntary manslaughter. If Mike Mann has his way in the state Capitol, future drunk drivers who kill will spend anywhere from 30 years to life behind bars for their crimes (see related story on page 3).
First Joplin Pastor Steve Butler pondered Meerwald’s sin.
“That vehicle became a weapon,” Butler said. “That choice, that negligence, which is sin, impacted the lives of many, many people.”
Mike Mann was in California on a business trip but managed to make it back to the hospital shortly before his daughter died. He talked about how devastating this has been for his son, who was very close to his blonde, blue-eyed sister.
“Steven went in the house and got his grandmother and told her that there was an accident and she had to come,” Mann said. “She took him by the hand and walked out. Jim was laying in the middle of the road about 30 or 40 feet from where they got hit. Jessica was close to 100 feet, almost to her great-grandmother’s driveway, which is the next house down, in the ditch. It knocked her completely out of her shoes. Her shoes were there in the driveway, where she was hit.
“Betty (the grandmother) said she could tell that there was no helping Jim. He was gone. They walked down the ditch to see Jessica. Some of the passerby’s were trying to do CPR on her, and we found out later that the man who was in the car driving drunk was also in the ditch there by her. Steven walked up and told his grandmother that that was his best sister.”
Mann broke down at that point as he tried to finish the story.
“I spoke about Jessica at the funeral and I had a much easier time of it than now,” he said. “I just called on the name of Lord to give me the strength, and He did.”
Jessica Mann was hospitalized with severe brain damage and internal bleeding. Her father spent about 45 minutes by her side before she died.
Meerwald’s drunk driving left the Manns having to pay funeral costs and hospital bills.
“This is sin in the world,” Mann said.
A drunk driver who is caught before he hurts someone typically will serve about six months of a four-year sentence before he is released from prison, Mann said.
“You kill someone and the maximum sentence is seven years,” Mann said. “I mean, does that make any sense to you? As it is now, in most cases, you could be up for parole in 16 months after killing somebody. Essentially you can drink in this state, you can cause harm and I’m the one left picking up the pieces.”
About 50 members of First Joplin cared enough to help the Mann family July 30 in the midst of their life-shattering experience.
“There have been a lot of comments about how it brought our congregation together,” Mann said. “I think it reenergized the work that we need to do.
“The impact has been so severe. You would have had to have known Jessica. She was very feminine, and most of the older ladies in the congregation I think got a big kick out of her. She always dressed very particular and liked fancy things, ruffles and Barbie dolls.”
Mann’s wife, Amy, is grieving the loss of her father and her daughter, both of whom were born on the same day—Sept. 16. Mike Mann said God, their church, and biblical counseling are giving them strength.
“The marriage survival rate of a family that goes through this is really low,” Mann said. “It’s about 30 percent. We’re doing the best we can. We’ve got a good Christian counselor here in town that we try to get to twice a month.”
Butler said the Manns are going to make it.
“Though they are devastated by this, they are not angry at the Lord,” Butler said. “They’re still very much involved in the church. I think their faith has certainly helped them, though that sorrow is certainly going to be there this side of heaven. I think that has allowed the church to grow in spirit as it has given us an opportunity to minister to them.”
Mike Mann is ready to be ordained as a deacon April 24.
“We’re not angry at all,” he said. “I don’t even ask why. It’s irrelevant why. It just is.”
Butler, who preached Jessica’s funeral Aug. 3 before at least 500 people at the church, said that God is being glorified through the pain.
“In the midst of a tragedy like this, God still gives hope and still gives purpose,” the pastor said.