CHICAGO (CBS) — Six of her children were killed in fiery highway crash; a crash that led to a huge political corruption scandal and, ultimately, the conviction of former Gov. George Ryan.
Now, Janet Willis is sharing some of her most personal thoughts.
She has written a new book titled “What on Earth is Heaven Like?” and she said she hopes it helps other people who are also suffering.
Speaking out for the first time since Ryan asked to be set free from prison to be with his dying wife, Lura Lynn Ryan, Willis expressed sympathy for the former governor, but said she believes he should stay behind bars.
“Our justice system did the right thing and the law already has made decisions about those kinds of things,” Willis said. “There’s many prisoners that have that separation. In my heart, sure, I feel for him. I feel for his wife. I wish it wouldn’t have to be this way.”
Ryan was convicted of multiple corruption charges in 2006, after federal agents investigated a licenses for bribes scandal at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, which Ryan ran before he went to prison.
Although Ryan was never charged with anything in direct connection to the crash that killed the Willis children, the truck driver who caused the fiery crash had gotten his license through a bribe to a worker at Ryan’s department.
George Ryan has served a little more than three years of a 6 ½-year sentence and has made multiple attempts to get out of prison while he appeals his case, in order to see his dying wife.
So far, prison officials have allowed him a short furlough to see his wife earlier this year, but his efforts at early release have failed.
“We have no animosity towards Mr. or Mrs. Ryan and we do pray for them,” Willis said. “I don’t know them and I don’t know their needs, but I do pray for them and there’s no bitterness there.”
Willis said it’s one thing to forgive Ryan for his crimes, but it’s another to see that he faces the proper punishment for them.
“Forgiveness … there’s a difference between legally forgiving somebody and harboring bitterness in your heart against somebody,” Willis said. “
She said her faith was shaken just briefly as six of her children burned and died in a highway crash linked to corruption in Ryan’s office. She and her husband, Rev. Scott Willis, were burned in the crash.
“In the actual trauma of the accident, it was really split seconds, and my husband called out to me Psalm 34, which is a verse that we had already memorized,” Willis said.
“I remember the flash through my mind, ‘Not a bible verse, not now,’ and immediately I realized, ‘Of course, a Bible verse,’” she added. “In the ambulance, I actually said ‘God, there’s no way I can handle this, I give it all to you and, just help me.’ And he did.”
Willis also said that in the first year or two after her children died the crash, “thinking of them growing up without me was just really agonizing. I don’t know if they’ll be the same age when I see them in heaven. That’s the way I picture them.”
Although the Willis’s three other children — who were not in the van the day of the crash — have blessed them with more than 20 grandchildren, Janet Willis said there will always be something missing in their lives because of the six children they lost.
“The grandchildren aren’t a replacement … but they’re a huge blessing,” she said. “No one will ever take the place of the six that we lost, but I know that I’m going to see them again someday. And when I see them, there’s not going to be anymore goodbyes. So, in that sense, there’s a hole, there’s a gap that’s going to be unfulfilled the rest of my life here on Earth.”
CBS 2 Producer Ed Marshall contributed to this report.