“I want offenders to see how families truly suffer,” Cecilia Williams lost her son, his fiancée, and her grandson in a crash caused by a drunk driver more than a year ago, but she is reminded of them every day.
The memories are in the little things, like the random pencil she found that she remembered her son, Cordell, looking for once. Or the corner of her yard in Bonne Terre, Mo., where Cordell and his fiancée set off party poppers with their young boys on the 4th of July. “When you lose a kid, you see them in everything,” Cecilia tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
Most of all, she is reminded by the expressions and questions of her two grandsons, Bentley, now six, and Mason, now four, who were orphaned in the crash and are now being raised by Cecilia and her husband Shawn. Bentley would ask the same question for months after losing his father, mother, and 4-month-old brother: “Do you think they’re still dead?”
“We think they’re doing okay,” says Cecilia of the boys. “But then there are the hard moments. We all have a hard time every day.”
It’s an all-too-common pain. In the United States in 2020, 11,654 people were killed in DUI crashes in the US, one every 45 minutes, leaving thousands of children without a parent. “I talked to so many people who’d say the same thing: The person that killed their family member didn’t go to jail. When [the case]went to court, they would spend zero time, and they’d just get probation,” Cecilia says.
“Some people love money more than they do life. So the way to teach a person and to prevent them from becoming a repeat offender and putting another family through this was to create something where they will have to pay,” she says.
So she decided she needed to do something to make would-be drunk drivers feel the pain of a loved one’s death. Bentley’s Law is a proposal that would require offenders to pay child support for children left behind when a parent is killed in a drunk-driving accident. “I want offenders to see how families truly suffer, how their actions affect everybody,” she adds. “I’m hoping that it makes people think twice.”
Since she began her campaign in the months following the crash, making calls and sending emails to legislators across the country while homeschooling her grandchildren, Tennessee has passed a bill similar to hers, and at least ten other states have introduced similar legislation.
“Cecilia’s very quiet, very polite, but she’s got a little fighter in her. She wants to make sure kids get what they need,” says Missouri state representative Mike Henderson, who introduced a Bentley’s Law bill earlier this year and hopes to see it pass in the next legislative session. If it does, however, it won’t be retroactive. “Cecilia would not benefit from this,” he says. “She’s doing it for other people. She’s fighting for what she thinks is right.”
The mission has given Cecilia, who has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a sense of purpose in the midst of an ongoing nightmare that began the night of April 13, 2021, when a state trooper arrived at her door to inform her that her son Cordell, 30, his fiancée Lacey Newton 25, and her infant grandson Cordell II had been killed. Cordell, who was planning to marry Lacey in September, and their baby were along with Lacey on delivery for a food service she worked for when they were hit. When Cecilia heard the news, “I remember screaming, screaming, screaming,” she says. “It’s been hell ever since.”
It wasn’t until the next day that she could face telling her grandsons, who had spent the night of the crash at her house, that the parents who loved taking them on spontaneous picnics and making s’mores over a bonfire were gone. “I said, ‘God came and took your mom and dad and your baby brother to heaven.’ And Bentley looked at me with such shock on his little face,” Cecilia says.