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Paul and Carol Parsons lost their 25-year-old son, Bronson, when he was hit by an SUV while he was walking to a friend’s house on New Year’s Eve 2007. Photo by Michael Jamison/Missoulian

TROY – For more than two years now, Carol Parsons has grieved for her son, lost to a hit-and-run driver at age 25.

“All I wanted,” she said, “was to know what happened that night.”

Now that she’s nearer than ever to attaining that closure, she’s surprised to find herself grieving for people she doesn’t even know – for the friends and family of the young woman accused of running down her son, Bronson Parsons.

“For so long, this was just an idea,” Carol said. “Now, it’s a person. It’s so hard. It’s not what I expected.

“It’s like these strangers are just thrust into your world in a very, very intimate way. And she’s so young – that’s the whole tragedy. As a mother, I can’t help but grieve for her family, too.”

The young woman is Katie Irene Garding, 23. A Stevensville resident, Garding is accused of a whole handful of felonies, including negligent homicide, hit-and-run and evidence tampering.

“My first thought was, ‘I’m glad it’s finally moving forward,’ ” Carol Parsons said, “but my second thought was, ‘Oh my, I have to pray for her parents.’ I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now, to have a 23-year-old daughter facing 40 years in prison.”

*****

But of course, in 40 years Bronson will still be gone.

Bronson Parsons was a native of Troy, the son of Paul and Carol Parsons, a hunter, a hiker, a skydiver, a carpenter, a snowboarder. In fact, he spent his last day riding powder up at Snowbowl, on New Year’s Eve 2007.

When the lifts closed, he called his mother to tell her about yet another epic day up on the hill, pulled off his snowboard pants and dressed for a potluck with friends, a half-block away from his East Missoula home.

Several hours later, walking home in the wee hours beneath a bright half-moon, he suddenly disappeared onto the hood of a black SUV, which had swerved off the road and onto the wide berm. The rig slowed – no brake lights, though – and Bronson slid off.

“They didn’t even stop,” Carol said.

And so began a mother’s long wait. For a year, detectives would call with updates.

 “They were always following one lead or another,” she said. She appreciated the calls, “but it was a roller coaster” of hopes raised and then dashed.

“It was great to know they were still working on it,” she said, “but it was hard when the leads ran out.”

*****

Then, just when hope seemed hardest to come by, one last lead emerged.

“We knew it was real, because they all started calling us at once,” she said. “We thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s coming together. We’re really going to solve this thing.’ ”

That was in December 2008, nearly a full year after Bronson’s death – but the real wait was just beginning.

Turns out, an unrelated case had led to a person who led to a person who led to a lead. Then a friend of Garding’s told police that, on the day of the accident, Garding had brought him her black Chevrolet Blazer so he could fix a smashed turn signal and headlight.

She said she’d hit a deer.

Once it was fixed, the man said, she’d traded in her rig.

Carol and Paul Parsons allowed their hopes to climb yet again, and then days stretched to weeks stretched to months. Another year passed.

“We tried to keep the hope and frustration separate from our daily life, and from our grief,” Carol said, “but it was hard to keep waiting.”

*****

Sometimes, she said, they’d both get a feeling, an urge to call for an update, and sure enough there’d be news. It was, Carol said, as if Bronson were prompting them, pushing for closure, too.

“It kept us going,” she said.

As did their involvement with Bronson’s last wish – that his organs be donated. His death saved several lives, and that brought a measure of solace to what otherwise seemed an unacceptably random loss.

A 57-year-old man from Georgia named Sam, with a wife and three kids, received Bronson’s right kidney. He’d been waiting three years.

A bus driver from Washington, age 62, received his left kidney and liver.

Another Washington man, 27 years old, married with two kids, got a huge, huge heart.

And Bronson’s lungs went to a 49-year-old Idaho miner, whose wife and eight kids are forever grateful.

Thirty people more received corneas, bone and tissue. And the ripples, Carol said, extended to their kids, their grandkids and on.

“It was a blessing,” she said, “to know he’d touched so many people in such a profound way.”

This New Year’s Day, on the second anniversary of his unsolved death, the Parsons traveled to Pasadena for the Rose Parade, to participate in a spectacular float organized by Donate Life. During their purgatory of waiting and still waiting, they’d found time to craft a floragraph – an organic likeness of Bronson – for the nationwide float, and met many other organ donor and recipient families.

“Meeting those people just gave us such a different perspective,” Carol said. “Hearing those stories, all that heartbreak and the miracles, it made me actually forget about the investigation for a while.”

But the investigators, certainly, had not forgotten about her.

*****

Following leads one to another, detectives eventually tracked down the Blazer, which still had tape on the headlight. They also found another tip, from a man who said he was actually in the SUV that night.

He told authorities that he and another passenger were arguing over a handgun when they “felt the vehicle hit something.”

But Garding, while admitting she drove that night, has denied hitting anything.

Medical experts have since matched Parsons’ injuries to the vehicle damage, and Garding is scheduled to appear in court this Tuesday.

In addition to the felonies, she faces a misdemeanor count of driving without a license.

As to the details of what happened that night, Carol said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

And waiting, she said, is something she’s become pretty good at.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Carol said. “We want this closure, but, as a parent, I can’t help thinking about this girl’s family.”

She and Paul will be in the Missoula courtroom Tuesday, and will for the first time put a face to the person they’ve imagined every day these past two years.

“Paul is pretty adamant,” she said. “He wants to be there for every step.”

Both, however, are hoping the steps are few and fast. Neither wants to sit through a trial, and Carol said she’d rather see an apology and a lighter sentence than a denial and a harsher penalty.

“We need to move on, and Bronson needs to be at peace,” she said. “This part of the story needs to end.

“I’m a retired teacher, and I’ve always told my students to just take responsibility if you did it, and to own your actions. That’s all we’ve ever asked. That’s what we’re hoping for now.”

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324 or at mjamison @missoulian.com.

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