A Missoula woman will spend five years in prison for the deaths of a 25-year-old man and his 3-year-old daughter in a horrific car crash nearly two years ago.
Ashley Thomas, 23, was wracked with tears as she sat at the defendant's table Tuesday in Missoula District Court.
"I'm so sorry," Thomas said in her statement to the court. "Tragedies like this are something you see in the news or in the movies … All I can do now is take responsibility and try to be a better person."
Judge Karen Townsend sentenced Thomas to 30 years in the Montana Women's Prison, with 25 suspended. She was taken into custody after the hearing.
Thomas pleaded guilty in July to two counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of Brandon and Paityn Zuleger in 2016. She also admitted to driving the car in which Zuleger, Thomas' partner at the time, and his daughter were riding when the vehicle veered out of the westbound lane on Interstate 90 and into the median. She over-corrected, rolling the vehicle and ejecting all three people inside.
The crash occurred around 4:15 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2016. Before that, the group had been kicked out of a Beavertail Hill State Park campground 26 miles west of Missoula. While en route back to town, they had planned to stop and smoke marijuana with a Bonner gas station clerk, according to text messages obtained by investigators. They didn't make it to Bonner before the crash.
A state crime lab toxicology supervisor testified at Thomas' sentencing on Tuesday that she had components of cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy in her blood taken at the hospital.
Thomas would spend 29 days in the hospital, 10 of then in the intensive care unit. She had suffered a broken neck, several broken vertebra, fractured pelvis, collapsed lungs and damaged spleen. Her mother, Anna Marie Shreves, said she still pulls glass out of Thomas' back.
It was not until days after Thomas woke up in the hospital, her father Jason Thomas said, that she learned Zuleger and Paityn had died as a result of the crash.
"She wanted to die," Jason Thomas said. "She'll grieve the rest of her life."
Zuleger's family made clear they are also still grieving, and not only for the victims. Kristine Welty, Zuleger's mother, talked about the "carnage and wreckage left behind," even moments after a crash. Prosecutors said the Montana Highway Patrol trooper who investigated the crash went home to his family and wept with them. He was unable to make the hearing Tuesday.
The defense asked Townsend to sentence Thomas to 30 years, with 25 suspended, with the Montana Department of Corrections instead of prison. Counselors noted she had committed no violations in her nearly two years on pretrial supervision, and had no prior criminal record. She also has to live knowing two loved ones were killed in a crash as she was driving, they said.
Additionally, Thomas is a new mother, having given birth in the time since she was charged in February 2017.
"I have a son," Thomas told Townsend in her statement. "I have to show him the way, the right way, to live his life. I hope he learns from my mistakes."
Her defense attorneys asked that the sentence focus on rehabilitation through community supervision, rather than punishment by prison time.
But Townsend said the crime warranted punishment.
"We simply cannot ignore that two people died," Townsend said.
Thomas will not have the ability to petition for early release from probation, so she will be under such supervision until she is 53.
The courtroom was loaded with people for the hearing on Tuesday; Thomas' family filled one side of the gallery while Zuleger's filled out the other. Sniffling could be heard as each statement was read aloud in open court.
"Mistakes happen. At the end of our life's journey we can look back at a handful of decisions," Doug Bennell, Welty's partner, said in his statement to the court. "I hope you spend the next five years in reflection. The world judges you … by adversity."