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Monica Bliss Ockwig, left, holds a photo of the grandchild she never met, Whyatt James Sander. She is joined by Melissa Prechel, sister to the woman convicted in the child's death. The photo was taken after a court hearing in Olivia. (Submitted photo)

Grandmother writes book about Redwood Falls, Minn., infant's tragic death

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OLIVIA -- A summer camping trip is forever a tragedy for the parents who lost their infant son when a cousin to the victim -- still intoxicated from a night of drinking and marijuana use -- backed over their tent in a van as they were waking up to a new day.

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Can the death of 3½-month-old Whyatt Sander in a Renville County park on July 5, 2009, serve to keep others from knowing the lifetime of hurt that's become the burden of those who loved him most?

That's the hope that led Whyatt Sander's grandmother to author "Where the White Dove Flies, The True Story of the Homicide of Whyatt James Sander.''

It's also the reason that Monica Bliss Ockwig, of Wasilla, Alaska, is developing a script that could turn her book into a movie as well.

One in four Americans will experience a tragedy not unlike the death of Whyatt Sander due to the actions of a chemically dependent person, according to Ockwig. She hopes the telling of his story will bolster the efforts of those looking to intervene in the lives of the chemically dependent.

And especially, Ockwig said she is hoping that the story will lead to changes in our criminal justice system. Treatment and rehabilitation need to be in the forefront when dealing with chemically dependent persons.

Nicolle Marie Prechel, 33, is currently serving time in the Minnesota Corrections Facility in Shakopee for her conviction of criminal vehicular homicide. She is scheduled for release on Sept. 24, 2012.

Prechel is Ockwig's niece. Prechel was already a repeat offender for alcohol- and drug-related incidents at the time of the tragedy, Ockwig said. She doubts that prison will make possible the changes she believes are needed in her niece's life.

"She's coming out with the same set of skills she went in with,'' said Ockwig. The public remains at risk when offenders return to the community without the treatment or rehabilitation needed, she argues.

Whyatt Sander's parents, Sheena Hinshaw and Jacob Sander, of Redwood Falls, still know the same pain two years after their son's death. "Time isn't a lessening at all, it's just an amplifier, I imagine,'' said Ockwig.

"Where the White Dove Flies'' offers an inside look at that pain. "I wanted to give a behind the headlines look of 'follow me into the rabbit hole,''' said Ockwig. "This is what happens, how it feels, this is what you will have to do and this is the pain and obviously the effect you will have to endure for your time on earth.''

Ockwig was at home in Alaska when a phone call delivered the tragic news of her grandson's death.

"It's like being punched in the stomach,'' she said. "You have no air, and your brain can't comprehend what you're hearing and it's all happening at the same time.''

Ockwig never had the opportunity to see or hold her new grandson, Whyatt Sander. A small, white casket and a cemetery monument are her final memories of the grandchild she never met.

She remembers holding her niece, Nicolle Prechel, as an infant.

"I was catapulted into the middle and I felt like a modern day Themis, when blood spills blood,'' she wrote of her family's tragedy.

Inevitably, this holiday weekend will produce its own victims and tragic headlines that will capture the public's attention until the next and equally heart-wrenching tragedy is reported. It's easy to succumb to a feeling of hopelessness, Ockwig acknowledged. "I'm just a hamster in a wheel and I'm just going round and round and people are dying.''

Sharing the inside story of her family's tragedy gives her hope of compelling some action to prevent the next.

''We don't know who the victims will be; but we surely have encountered the repeat offender previously and this is where we need to focus our efforts,'' she explained.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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