Marilyn San Felippo of Vilonia, doesn’t remember the accident that happened five years ago on Sept. 12, that took the lives of her 35-year-old husband John, 10-year-old son Jersey and her in-laws Frank and Judith.
Her last memory of the day is her son’s playful ways in the parking lot as they were leaving the IHOP restaurant in Conway. He was doing “little turn kicks,” on his way to the car. She pretended she was going to spank him. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. Within the next 30 minutes, her life would change forever.
It was a Sunday morning and they had gone to the restaurant for brunch. Her husband’s parents had traveled to Vilonia on Friday to spend a week with the family. Just as much as her husband and son did, she loved spending time with her in-laws. They lived in Sun City, Arizona and generally only visited once per year. Her mother in law, she said, was her best friend. They talked by daily on the phone. When the accident occurred, she speculates they may have been discussing their plans for the week. The guys had set up golfing dates and she and her mother in law were going antiquing.
Frank and Judith were in the front seat. Marilyn and John were in the back seat with Jersey in the middle. It was instant death for everyone but Marilyn.
Emergency workers found her in the floorboard with the front seat rolled up over her.
Marilyn was hospitalized 30 days—10 of which was spent in a coma. She had numerous life threatening injuries. Both of her arms were in casts. She had a port in her chest. When she woke, she said, she was confused and didn’t remember the accident. She thought she had fell and bumped her head. She was angry at John for leaving her in the hospital alone.
“Nothing ever made sense,” she said. A nurse told her there had been an accident, she said, and that Jersey was in Children’s Hospital and that he was going to be fine. She reasoned that John was staying with him and that is why he wasn’t with her. After she came out of the coma, she said every time she would wake up they would give her medication to cause her to go back to sleep.
While helping her to bathe, on the third day, she noticed her mother avoided making eye contact. She said that’s when she knew she wasn’t being told the whole story. At her urging, she said her mother managed to get out “they didn’t make it. No one lived but you.”
She learned later that she wasn’t expected to live either.
“A doctor told me when I came in, I was bleeding from every orifice and I had congestive heart failure,” she said. “He said there was no reason that I was still living.”
Marilyn doesn’t know what the next chapter of her life will be. Both physically and mentally, she is still recovering. She has two metal rods in her left forearm and a metal bracket in the wrist on her right arm. She spends a lot of time working out, she said, in order to exhaust her body and mind. She plans to continue to live in Vilonia. “I love it here,” she said. Yet, she is planning on some changes. For instance, she has remained silent in the past but now she is contemplating accepting invitations to serve as a motivational speaker. Also, she is writing a book.
Within about three months of the wreck, she returned to her job at CUDD working in payroll. It was a rough road but her boss, she said, was incredible and allowed her to ease back into the job—some of the time working only half days. She continued to work there until January 2015 when she was laid off by the company’s new owners.
While her memories surrounding the wreck are vague, she has vivid memories of her husband and son. Just a couple of months before the wreck, she surprised them with a trip to Florida.
“John and Jersey had never seen the ocean,” she said. On that trip, her son gave her a hug and kiss and whispered to her “the beach will always be ours.”
She’s been back to that spot on the beach several times since the accident. It provides her some peace and allows her the opportunity to reflect on a happy time. She captured the moment with photographs. One of her favorite is her son and husband walking down to the beach hand in hand.
Jersey’s birthday is Dec. 4, and John’s birthday is Feb. 28. She has celebrated their birthdays since the accident with balloons, a cake and “boosha burgers” like those made by their Polish grandmother.
“That is what they wanted every year,” Marilyn said. “They didn’t want presents.”
John and Marilyn had met while she was attending Ouachita Baptist College Arkadelphia and they had been together almost 15 years. He was doing construction at the college. It wasn’t love at first sight but it didn’t take long until they knew they were soul mates. Spiritually, Marilyn finds comfort in believing that her family crossed over together.
“Generally, everybody goes alone,” she said. “I know, with them all going together, Jersey has peace and love. That makes it some easier.”
The accident occurred on Highway 64 East about four miles out of Vilonia.
Russell Johnston and James Charles Holian were sentenced to time in the Arkansas Department of Corrections in connection with the incident which allegedly involved road rage. It has been reported the actions between Johnston and Holian had been taking place for about eight miles before the crash.