Remembering Patty: Family recalls accident that took life of 8-year-old
By Shavonne Potts
In just about every corner of Pat Burgdoff’s home are pictures and trinkets that remind her of Patty, the little tomboy who was beginning to emerge as a little lady.
Patricia Eleanor “Patty” Burgdoff, named after her grandmothers, died Dec. 8, 2006, when the car she was riding in was hit from behind by a drunk driver.
She and best friend Justen Morgan, who was 7 years old at the time, sat in the back of the car. Justen’s mother, Shania Thompson, was driving, and her husband, Michael Thompson, was a passenger in the car.
At the time of the wreck, witnesses told police they saw Ross Edward Neese, then 25, driving erratically and speeding down U.S. 29 in China Grove, near Gary’s Barbecue. He struck the rear of the car with his Ford Explorer.
The impact pinned Patty inside the car. She was wearing a seat belt but died on impact.
A grand jury indicted Neese a month later on two counts of serious injury by vehicle, a new felony put into law seven days before Patty was killed. He was also indicted for driving while impaired and felony death by vehicle.
Little touches of Patty scattered throughout the Shue Road home, where many family gatherings take place, keep her fresh in her family’s minds.
There’s the little rubber lizard the 8-year-old stuck to her grandmother’s wall the day of the accident. It remains where she left it, now affixed to the wall with a tack and a sign that reads, “Do not touch.” It’s just one of the reminders Pat keeps in plain sight.
There are pictures of Patty with her father, Donnie, and grandfather, Duane, at the YMCA’s father-daughter dance.
Duane recalled his granddaughter telling him he couldn’t dance. She made him sit down, he said with a little laugh.
“I was bouncing up and down,” Duane said.
There’s also the throw, plaque and pillow with Patty’s face emblazoned on them. And there’s a corner shelf holding a few of Patty’s knickknacks ó a mini hammer and a piece of trick chewing gum with a fake bug attached to the end.
The family talked fondly about the little girl who punished herself before her parents ever could.
“When she was in trouble she’d say, ‘My brain told me to do it,’ ” Donnie recalled.
When Patty’s grandfather or father worked outside, Patty was close behind.
She had her own toolbox and helped out in the garage. She even mowed the lawn. Of course, her riding mower didn’t have a blade, but that didn’t matter.
“She was her dad and grandpa’s shadow,” Pat said.
Her dad called her a “tomboy who was moving toward being a little more girly.”
The young girl was friendly to everyone she met, her father said.
That weekend in December 2006 started like many others. Patty and Justen had a sleepover and went fishing the next morning.
Patty, Justen and his mother, Shania, and stepfather, Michael, grabbed a bite to eat at Gary’s Barbecue.
Everyone remembered where they were when their world changed ó Donnie was supposed to be heading to Fort Bragg for more National Guard training. Her mother, Cindi, was at Wal-Mart. Pat was preparing dinner and Duane was at home with her.
Shania called Pat to tell the family there had been a car accident. Donnie and Duane set out for Gary’s. On the way, they thought the wreck couldn’t have been that bad because they saw some law enforcement officers sitting down to dinner at Porky’s Barbecue.
But as they approached U.S. 601, they saw law enforcement and emergency vehicles everywhere.
“It looked like Christmas,” Donnie said.
He kept asking anyone who would listen, “Where’s the other child?”
It was China Grove Police Officer D.P. Walther who pulled the two men aside and told them Patty didn’t survive.
Although he didn’t remember it happening, Donnie “blanked out,” he said.
He could see the back of Patty’s head in the back of the car.
When his wife arrived, “she knew something was wrong,” Donnie said.
Overcome with emotion, Cindi was carried away by some friends.
Telling the rest of the family of Patty’s death was hard for Donnie.
He went to his mother’s house where the family waited for word.
Donnie, dropped to his knees to explain to his grandmother why Patty wasn’t coming home.
“She said, ‘No. I’ve lived my life. Why didn’t they take me?’ ” Pat said.
Cindi and Donnie took the advice of doctors who recommended they not view their daughter’s body at the hospital. It would be at her funeral where they would see her for the final time.
There was an open casket for family and a closed casket for the nearly 600 people who came for the visitation.
The funeral home created a video photo collage. The family hadn’t watched it since the funeral, but they did last week. All but Patty’s parents, who couldn’t. They left the room.
Country music singer Collin Raye’s song “I Think About You” played over photos that slowly moved across the screen. Only a few minutes long, the DVD displayed pictures of Patty as an infant, toddler and with family. One photo is of a smiling Patty wearing her nursery school graduation robe and holding a blue cap in her hand.
“It’s the only graduation gown we’ll ever see her in,” Pat said.
If Pat had her way, Neese’s punishment would be captured on video for the family to watch.
As for Neese, Patty’s family says no apology could heal their wounds.
“He’s taken something from us that can’t be replaced,” Pat said.
“I don’t think he realizes what he’s done,” Duane said.
“He ruined my life,” said Cindi, who sat quietly most of the time other family members were speaking.
Patty’s older siblings, Danny and Danielle ó who both live in New York ó don’t talk much about their sister. It’s too painful for them, the family said.
A couple of weeks ago, the family gathered for Pat and Duane’s 50th wedding anniversary.
Seeing the family gathered brought back memories of 15 months ago, when they sat together for Patty’s funeral. The sight was hard for Danielle, her father said.
“It’s hard. There’s no closure. There will never be any closure,” Pat said.
Though she couldn’t hold back tears as she reminisced about her youngest granddaughter, Pat said she thinks it does get a little easier to talk about.
And the family keeps Patty with them in other ways. They visit China Grove Elementary, where Patty was in second grade and a playground was dedicated to her.
They also adopt a family every year from the school to whom they give presents during the Christmas holiday. It continues a tradition they started in 2006, when the presents they’d bought for Patty that Christmas were given to another child her age.
“It helps another family and it keeps her memory alive,” Pat said.
As for justice, the family remains in limbo and frustrated. The expected trial date for Neese is sometime in July, though court records do not show a trial date in Rowan.
Neese has a pending case for a seat belt violation in Forsyth County. According to court records, his case there is expected to be heard April 1.
“I’m more concerned that the trial will bring back too many memories,” Donnie said.
In a month, Justen, Patty’s best friend and the boy she said she was going to marry, will walk in her honor during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving event in Charlotte.
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or email@example.com.