Mothers of sisters killed in Forest Grove leaf pile ask driver to honor the girls

The defense attorney cried.

The prosecuting attorney did not press for prison time.

The grief-stricken parents asked the judge to free the woman who had killed their children.

It was one of the most unusual and emotionally stunning cases ever to pass through a Washington County courtroom.

Everyone seemed to recognize that until Oct. 20, then-18-year-old Cinthya Garcia (Cisneros) had been “an exemplary member of our community,” in the words of Circuit Court Judge Rick Knapp, who sentenced her to probation instead of prison.

And everyone recognized that Garcia’s playful but deadly detour through a pile of fallen leaves — at her brother’s suggestion — was a tragic accident, which she didn’t even learn about until 10 minutes later, while relaxing at home.

That’s when her brother, Mario Garcia Jr., returned from a quick trip back to the scene on the 1700 block of Main Street to tell her that it wasn’t a rock or a log she’d run over in the leaves — it was children.

Playful themselves, sisters Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, 6, and Abigail Robinson, 11, were lying down in the giant leaf pile, perhaps hiding and hoping to surprise their father, Tom Robinson, who had been snapping photos of them and had stepped inside to put away his camera.

Those few unsupervised minutes led to a volcanic explosion of pain that engulfed not just the girls’ parents and family members, but the entire Forest Grove community — as well as parts of Cornelius, Hillsboro and a small town in Washington. Facebook pleas for prayers for all involved stretched beyond Oregon.

While the girls’ parents immediately recognized that the deaths were accidental, Susan Dieter-Robinson was haunted by the notion that she was unable to hold the still-warm body of her daughter Anna one last time, due to the risk that her embrace might have destroyed evidence in what appeared to be a hit-and-run case.

That would have changed, she said, if Garcia had returned to the scene and told police what happened.

Garcia herself is haunted by her choice not to do so. “I tell myself every day: ‘I should have gone back,’” she said in court Friday, barely choking out the words through her tears.

The parents — all five of them, including Susan Dieter-Robinson and Tom Robinson, Tersia Theel (Abigail’s biological mother), Randal Eckerdt (Anna’s father) and his fiancée, Jane Samuels — have all responded to Garcia with forgiveness.

None denies the pain she caused, not just through the deaths but by failing to return to the scene. “You sat a block away,” Dieter-Robinson reminded her Friday.

But all hope Garcia can overcome this tragedy and live a life that honors Anna and Abigail.

“I hope you can get past this. I hope you can own this,” Samuels told her Friday morning. “I know you have a good heart. You have a conscience. Listen to those two, your conscience and your heart. When life is unfair, don’t let that be the last word. Please don’t let your life be lost in this accident.”

Struggling to speak through tears, Dieter-Robinson talked about the choice she herself must now make — just as Garcia had a choice to return to the accident scene.

“You caused a lot of my pain in my family,” she said. “I can live the rest of my life with anger and resentment toward you. Or I can forgive you. I’m going to choose forgiveness. I choose it because I don’t want to be stuck on the night of October 20.

“I don’t want you to spend any more time in jail,” she continued. “Live a life of honoring my girls. Please.”

The two women spoke at the microphone near the prosecution table, facing the judge, but cocking their heads to include Garcia in their audience.

When Garcia’s turn came to speak, she broke from the usual protocol where defendants stand at the defense table and speak toward the judge. Instead, she asked permission to walk, still shackled at the legs, to the same microphone the mothers had used, then turned around to face the gallery so she could speak to all the parents directly.

“There are no words I can give you guys,” she said through tears. “I don’t have children. I’m only 19. But I have little cousins and I love them so much. I can’t imagine your pain and what you’re going through. I’m truly sorry.”

She thanked them for their forgiveness and said she wished she could give them a hug.

In deference to the wishes of the family, Knapp sentenced Garcia to three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.

“It was the most amazing court appearance I’ve ever been to — the most emotionally laden and touching and beautiful,” said Defense Attorney Ethan Levi, who had to haul out his hankie during the statements by Samuels, Dieter-Robinson and Garcia.

“They were all connecting on a level that was much deeper than the court system usually allows,” he said.

During the hearing, Levi talked about the “tremendous fallout” Garcia would suffer from her conviction, noting that she still faces deportation regardless of her sentence to probation instead of prison.

Garcia was brought to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when she was 4. She got legal status recently through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but her felony conviction erases that.

“She’s a Washington County girl. She’s an American girl,” Levi said, noting that Garcia went through Cornelius and Forest Grove schools.

But if she is deported to Mexico, Garcia would be in an unfamiliar country filled with strangers — far from the only family and friends she has ever known and loved.

And there are other forms of fallout, Levi said. When Garcia has children, for example, “she’s going to look in their eyes and see Anna and Abigail.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey said he was concerned about the poor choices Garcia had made, but he balanced that against her absence of any criminal record. Instead of recommending a specific sentence, he left it up to the judge, saying, “Whatever the sentence is in this case, I hope she makes better decisions.”

After the trial, McKey said he thought Knapp made the right decision, particularly given the parents’ request for probation.

A longtime friend of Garcia’s, Caty Lucas of Cornelius, said she felt relieved. “I have family members who have gone to prison and that’s not a good place.”

“This is emotional,” said Cinthya’s father, Mario Garcia Sr. “Of course I feel grateful that my daughter doesn’t have to go to jail, but still sad that nothing is going to bring the children back.”

He was moved by the speeches from Samuels and Dieter-Robinson. “I didn’t know they would be so forgiving,” he said. The parents are all wonderful people and “we feel it deeply,” he said.

Garcia Sr. wants Abigail’s and Anna’s parents to know how grateful he is to all of them and to “our whole Forest Grove community” and the many people who have prayed for all their families.

He knows the ordeal has changed and darkened all their lives, down to the last ordinary detail.

“We’ll never see a pile of leaves the way we did before.”

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