Painting keeps memories, cause alive

Theresa Sautter and son Shawn with portrait of daughter Marylee Otto, victim of a hit-run driver.
Theresa Sautter and son Shawn with portrait of daughter Marylee Otto, victim of a hit-run driver.
Posted: December 23, 2010

HER BIG, BLUE EYES smile and glitter. Her auburn hair is pulled up in a clip, while her straight back and tan arms radiate elegance.

Looking out from an oil portrait, in a dark-blue tank top she borrowed from her mother, Marylee Otto will forever remain young and beautiful.

Marylee, 15, was killed by hit-and-run driver Michelle Johnson, then a registered nurse in the Philadelphia Prison System, when the teen was crossing Rhawn Street at Lexington Avenue in the Northeast about 11 p.m. March 28, 2008.

Marylee's mother, Theresa Sautter, was given the oil portrait by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Saturday during its annual holiday event.

The portrait is one of nearly 400 that have been painted by volunteer artists as part of PAFA's Lost Dreams on Canvas program that memorializes the lives of young victims of violence.

"When I first saw it, I didn't believe how beautiful it was," Sautter said in the living room of her Northeast Philly home yesterday as Marylee's portrait, in a gilded frame, sat tall on a nearby ottoman, leaning against a wall.

"I just broke down crying," she said.

She plans to hang the portrait on her dining-room wall on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, joined by other family members and her daughter's friends. She will put up other family photos, too, including ones of Marylee with the many animals she loved, making it a "Marylee wall."

"These are lost dreams," Judy Ringold, PAFA's director of museum education, said last week. "Somebody wanted to be a mechanic, a hairdresser, in the Air Force. We can see the dreams that were lost."

About seven other families also received portraits of their young, loved ones at Saturday's event.

The Lost Dreams program began in 1993, when the late Rich Montgomery, founder of Veterans Against Drugs, contacted Ringold with the idea.

The victims' families receive the original portraits. PAFA then creates high-quality photo reproductions to exhibit. The reproductions travel to schools, churches and community centers as a way to get out the message that violence shatters lives and kills unfulfilled dreams.

Artist Eliza Auth painted Marylee's portrait and presented the 16-by-20-inch oil painting to a weeping Sautter on Saturday.

"I'm going to cry even thinking about it," Auth, the wife of Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth and mother of two daughters, said last week. "Looking at it was so overwhelming because she could have been any one of our children. It just made me so upset and angry that someone could be so callous" as to hit Marylee, then flee.

"I was trying to show her youth and a sweetness that I could see," Auth said. "I guess youth is the thing - and fragility."

Sautter said the portrait gives her peace. "It definitely, definitely helps."

Added the mother: "I just look at it and I think of all the positive, not the negative, we had to go through" in the past few years. "I'm not so angry. She [Marylee] wouldn't want me to be angry."

Auth's devoting her own time to the portrait and putting "herself into it makes me feel like somebody cared," Sautter said.

Sautter has been relentlessly trying to get state lawmakers to increase the mandatory-minimum sentence for a driver who flees the scene of an accident.

Now, someone who leaves the scene of a fatal accident faces a mandatory-minimum sentence of one year in prison. If the accident causes serious injury, the driver faces a mandatory-minimum sentence of 90 days behind bars.

State Sen. Michael Stack, D-Philadelphia, had sponsored a bill to increase to five years the mandatory-minimum for someone who flees the scene of a fatal accident, and to two years if the driver inflicts serious injury.

The bill passed the Senate Transportation Committee in June and was then referred to the Appropriations Committee, where it sat.

With a new state Senate convening next month, the bill needs to be reintroduced. Stack promises to do so.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't take substantial action in the last session," Stack said last week. "But I still believe there's bipartisan support. And I hope [incoming] Gov. Corbett is interested, as a former law-enforcement guy, in this kind of legislation. We're not going to give up on it."

Johnson, 42, the nurse who killed Marylee, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident and was sentenced to the mandatory-minimum term of one to two years in prison as part of a negotiated deal. She was released from state prison Aug. 29, nearly three weeks shy of her maximum two-year term.

Sautter, who has been gathering petition signatures from people who want to increase the mandatory-minimum sentences, asks anyone who wants to add his or her name to the petitions to call her at 267-636-3486.

Anyone who would like to help PAFA fund its Lost Dreams on Canvas program may call Ringold at 215-972-2061 or e-mail her at jringold@pafa.org.

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