His Wife Was Killed by a Distracted Driver — and He Honored Her Memory by Forgiving Man Who Hit Her

It was shortly after 5:30 a.m. on May 6 when Curtis Nielsen received the phone call that forever divided his life into before and after.

His wife, Melissa, 40, had just kissed him goodbye, told him she would see him soon. She then left for her daily morning walk around their neighborhood in Rigby, Idaho.

Within minutes, Curtis' phone rang: It was Melissa’s friend saying she'd found her lying on the side of the road. After rushing to the scene, Curtis found Melissa on the ground. Their next-door neighbor, Lincoln Lear, 46, was standing nearby in horror.

Lincoln was on the phone begging a 911 dispatcher to send an ambulance. He said he had been driving to work and reached down to plug in his phone to charge. It was in that moment that he swerved and hit Melissa.

“I started breaking down,” recalls Curtis, whose four children, Trinity, 15, Ivan, 11, Daphne, 8, and Victor, 4, were sleeping at home. “I started to pray. I knew she wasn’t going to be with us after this.”

Kneeling on the ground beside her, Curtis also knew that his wife of nearly 19 years would want peace, and for him “to forgive Lincoln,” he said. So that’s exactly what he did. (The case is featured on tonight's episode of PEOPLE (the TV Show), airing at 7 p.m. ET. More tune-in information is below.)

For more on Curtis Nielsen's journey to forgiveness, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Lincoln was subsequently charged with vehicular manslaughter, and pleaded guilty. But Curtis has been supportive of him. Lincoln's offense is punishable by a year in jail and steep fines, but Curtis insisted he not go to jail or pay anything.

“He was always being tortured enough by his own actions,” says Curtis, “and I didn’t want to jeopardize him not having time with his own family."

Lincoln’s life at home had been challenging far before the accident. His wife, Rachel, 41, suffers from a debilitating respiratory condition. In 2014, the couple lost their oldest son, 9-year-old Aidan, to neuromuscular degenerative disorder. Then came the news that their two other children, Jace, now 13, and Damon, 11, have the same disorder that claimed Aidan’s young life.

“I feel so grateful. Everybody’s been so supportive, caring and sympathetic,” says Lincoln. “If his attitude was different, I’d be in jail.”

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