Drunken driver hit with 35-year sentenceLower Brule teen hears emotional testimony after Reliance crash that killed five.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
KENNEBEC — A 19-year-old Lower Brule woman was sentenced Thursday to 35 years in prison for driving drunk and causing a crash that killed five people and injured others last year.
Tessa J. Crane hung her head and occasionally wiped tears from her eyes as she listened to family members of the five people killed in the crash give emotionally charged statements during her sentencing Thursday afternoon at the Lyman County Courthouse in Kennebec. The proceeding took two hours.
“I can’t help but think of the horror my daughter endured in this crash,” said Theresa Laroche, of Lower Brule, mother of 18-year-old Gabriella Laroche, who died in the crash. “I think of it often, and I just want these feelings to go away.”
Gabriella Laroche was driving a 2001 Toyota Corolla when it collided head-on with the 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by Crane. Laroche’s vehicle was carrying five passengers on a rural road nine miles northwest of Reliance. The vehicles collided at a hillcrest and became engulfed in flames as a result of the impact.
Laroche died at the scene, as did three passengers in the Toyota: Truman R. Armell, 33, of Winnebago, Neb., Alvina Johnson, 32, of Lower Brule, and Deja Sazue, 10, of Lower Brule. Jesse Hawk Wing, 35, of Lower Brule, was one of two passengers in the Oldsmobile and also died at the scene. The second passenger in the Oldsmobile, Caleb D. Mills, 22, of Lower Brule, suffered only minor injuries.
Two juvenile passengers were thrown from the Toyota and sustained serious, but non-life threatening, injuries.
Elaine Johnson, Deja’s mother and Alvina Johnson’s sister, had her daughter’s ashes with her as she spoke Thursday in court.
“I held this little girl every single day that she was alive, and I hold my remaining children every day,” Johnson said. “On that day, I couldn’t hold her or kiss her when she needed me the most.”
Johnson is a first responder for the ambulance service in Crow Creek. She was called to respond to the crash that killed her daughter and sister. “It was never an accident,” she said. “Because of one decision that was made, I no longer have my sister and I no longer have my daughter.”
One by one, victims’ family members spoke before the court, each with their own tragic story of loss.
“My mom, she was just a really good person,” said 12-year-old Mamut Blaine, son of Alvina Johnson, timidly speaking with tears in his eyes as he recalled his mother. “She was just a nice person.”
Mamut was one of the two passengers ejected from the Toyota in the crash. Though he suffered severe cuts to his legs, Mamut managed to save his 3-year-old brother Sebastian, who suffered a broken neck and broken foot, from the wreckage before it burst into flames. After months of treatment, both boys have made full recoveries.
“This is a case where anything to be said is insufficient,” said Paul Jensen, Crane’s court-appointed attorney. “There aren’t words in our vocabulary that can address all the earthly emotions we feel in a case like this.”
Jensen told Judge Patricia DeVaney that Crane’s rehabilitation would need to focus on treatment for her substance abuse, but added Crane takes full responsibility for the crash.
“She knows that she can’t blame anybody else for what she did,” he said.
Lyman County State’s Attorney Anita Fuoss said it wasn’t simply a substance abuse problem that brought Crane to court.
“I think we need to keep in mind that 16 months ago, Tessa Crane chose to drink and drive,” Fuoss said. “Five people died, two people were seriously injured and several families were torn apart. That’s why we’re here.”
Once the attorneys concluded their arguments, Crane was given a chance to speak. Through sobs, she apologized to the family members of the victims.
“I don’t think they’ll ever forgive, because I have not yet forgiven myself,” she said.
As part of a plea agreement, Jensen and Fuoss both asked DeVaney to sentence Crane to the maximum of 15 years in prison on all five counts of vehicular homicide, to be served concurrently. That would have meant the sentences would have been served at the same time, resulting in 15 years served. Crane would have been parole eligible in less than five years under that sentence.
“That simply isn’t enough,” DeVaney said. “You have a debt to pay, Ms. Crane, to these people.”
DeVaney set aside the plea agreement and sentenced Crane to 10 years in prison with three years suspended on each of the five counts of vehicular homicide, to be served consecutively. That means each seven-year term will be served one after the other for a total of 35 years.
Her driver’s license will be revoked for 10 years upon her release from prison. As a condition of her suspended prison terms, Crane will be required to do community service and give speeches about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Crane will be parole eligible in less than 11 years because it is her first felony conviction.
“No matter what sentence I impose here today, she has to live with the knowledge every day of all the pain she caused to all of you,” DeVaney told the victims’ family members before handing down the sentence.
“That is a huge burden.”