A 21-year-old man who wrecked a car on Hillview Way in March, killing two of his friends and injuring a third, pleaded guilty in Missoula County District Court on Wednesday to two counts of vehicular homicide under the influence.
Justin Leshai Barber also pleaded guilty to negligent vehicular assault. The March 4 rollover crash killed Jason McDonald, 20, of Frenchtown and Joshua Gruebele, 18, of Missoula. Nic Von Platz, 22, was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for treatment of his injuries.
Barber, who has been held in the Missoula County jail on $500,000 bail since the crash, looked over his shoulder and smiled slightly at supporters – including the families of his victims – who crowded the courtroom Wednesday.
He told Judge Ed McLean that he understood the maximum penalty for the homicide charges against him was 30 years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine. Under a plea agreement, however, Barber would serve 10 years in prison, and could be eligible for parole in two or three years, according to his attorney Milt Datsopoulos.
The agreement calls for a 20-year sentence, with 10 suspended, on the first vehicular homicide charge.
The second homicide charge – to be served consecutively to the first – would net a 20-year sentence, with all the time suspended. And he’d be sentenced to 10 years on the assault charge, to be served concurrently with the sentence on the first homicide charge. He also must pay fees totaling $685, Datsopoulos said.
However, Datsopoulos said he intends to ask the judge to reject the plea agreement in favor of a more lenient arrangement – perhaps five years in the Department of Corrections, maybe under home arrest or in a pre-release center.
He described his client as “somebody who clearly has received the message.”
Family members of all of Barber’s victims will be among many people testifying on his behalf at a three-hour sentencing hearing set for Feb. 1, Datsopoulos said.
Gruebele’s mother, Cassie, said Wednesday that she’ll be one of them.
“Justin is a good person. He’s so sorry. He deserves a second chance,” she said.
Gruebele said she understands that people are frustrated with the problem of drunken driving. Still, she said, “I hope the judge will find it in his heart to look at this situation as individual.”
She visits Barber in jail every chance she gets, she said, and often, he ends up comforting her.
“Sometimes I think he tries to remain strong for me,” she said. But, she added, “I’m in a better place than he is. My son is safe now. He’s OK.”
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com or @CopsAndCourts.