‘A very dark place’: Silicon Valley leader opens up about fatal crash
Jenny Higgins at the Maker Nexus offices in Sunnyvale, where she is the executive director, on March 6, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    More than three years after Jenny Higgins fatally struck Santa Cruz resident Timothy Starkey with her car, she said not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about the pain her actions have caused his family.

    “I carry a burden of shame, of sadness,” Higgins told San José Spotlight.

    Higgins, the co-founder and former president of Women’s March Bay Area and a former San Jose City Council candidate, said she has been attending therapy sessions and support groups to address her survivor’s guilt and the trauma of the crash.

    “In order to figure out what the meaning of my life is after a mistake that is so tragic, that caused so much pain to so many people,” Higgins said.

    Higgins was driving from San Jose to Los Gatos on the morning of Dec. 16, 2019, when she veered out of her lane on Blossom Hill Road and struck 66-year-old Starkey, who was on the shoulder unloading his car.

    Starkey suffered severe injuries to his torso and head and was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash by medical personnel. Higgins was found to be under the influence of benzodiazepine at the time of the crash, a class of medication sometimes prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, such as Xanax and Klonopin. People who are prescribed those kinds of tranquilizer medications are warned not to drive because the drugs can cause drowsiness or dizziness.

    Higgins was initially charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, and pleaded no contest, but Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jose Franco reduced her charge to a misdemeanor in a July 2021 hearing.

    She was sentenced to six months in jail, but Franco later allowed her to carry out her sentence without any jail time by wearing an ankle monitor for three months. She also was ordered to pay about $183,000 in restitution to Starkey’s widow Kathleen, complete 350 hours of community service and received two years of probation.

    A need to give back

    Higgins, who said she was in a “very, very dark place” for months after her case concluded, has recently taken on a new role as the executive director of Maker Nexus, a Sunnyvale nonprofit that helps people of all ages and backgrounds to learn about building and creating with modern and classic tools.

    “One of the things that I can do that allows me to get out of that dark, dark spot, is to give back to my community and try to make this world a better place for people to live in,” Higgins said. “If it wasn’t for that, I might not be able to get out of bed in the morning.”

    Maker Nexus focuses on equity in the study of science, technology, engineering, arts and math, and lowering barriers to opportunity in those creative areas for marginalized groups.

    “There is a theory of no lost Einsteins, and I also like to say no lost Madame Curies, simply because they were not exposed to STEAM learning,” Higgins said. “The equity of that is spread out unfairly.”

    Higgins said youth who walk into the maker space and try their hand at a new skill gain a lot of confidence through the process of conceiving an idea and creating it from scratch, whether via 3D printing or the use of wood, metal, fabric and acrylic materials.

    “I had a feeling of hope and possibility,” Higgins said of the way the maker space makes her feel. It’s helping her work through the ongoing healing process caused by the trauma of the fatal crash, she said.

    Starkey’s family previously said they were disappointed in Higgins’ initial sentence, which amounted to a “slap on the wrist.” Starkey’s daughter later told The Mercury News in a statement that Higgins has “seen almost no punishment for her actions.”

    Starkey family members did not respond to requests for comment.

    Higgins said she has not spoken with the Starkey family since the trial.

    “I have too much respect for them to send any type of message to them through the media, they know that I am available to speak to, and I will help them the best I can, any way I can, with the healing process,” she said.

    Higgins said she has closely followed the requirements of her sentencing, but couldn’t say whether her punishment was appropriate for her actions.

    “I don’t have an answer for that. How do you put what’s appropriate?” she said through tears. “There are no words in the English language to explain the tragedy and the pain of knowing that your actions caused so much pain to a family. Sorry isn’t even a word that comes close.”

    Higgins, who ran for San Jose City Council in 2020, took some time off after the crash but ultimately continued her campaign, placing third in the primary race for District 10.

    Following the case, which concluded in late 2021, Higgins worked as an executive assistant at a production company before taking on her current role in February. Higgins said she also helped run an independent expenditure group supporting the campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass in the 2022 general election.

    She said her current work is bringing her joy, and while running the program, she is also planning to expand her own maker skills by trying out the various tools and equipment at the facility in Sunnyvale.

    The work helps her continue processing her own trauma.

    “It will be a journey that I will work on for my entire life,” she said.

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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