THOMPSON FALLS – Abel and Judy Bennett say they don’t understand how someone who has been convicted of drunken driving once before can do it again, cause an accident that kills two people and seriously injures two children, and wind up with a plea agreement that could leave him eligible for parole in 2 1/2 years.
“When it comes to DUIs, we’re supposed to be so big on stopping them, yet when they kill someone the punishment is not there,” said Abel Bennett, whose son, Jeremiah, and Jeremiah’s fiancée Christina Jackson, died on Sept. 8 when a drunken driver crossed the centerline of a two-lane road and smashed head-on into their vehicle.
The driver, Thompson Falls School Board vice chairman Lance Pavlik, pleaded guilty last week to four felonies, including two counts of vehicular homicide while under the influence, in his initial court appearance.
If District Court Judge C.B. McNeil accepts the terms of a plea agreement agreed to by Sanders County Attorney Bob Zimmerman, Pavlik will be sentenced to 15 years on each count of vehicular homicide, with 10 years suspended on each, and 10 years on each of two counts of criminal endangerment, with all time suspended on those.
The sentences would run consecutively under the terms of the plea agreement, meaning Pavlik could spend up to 10 years in the custody of the Montana Department of Corrections.
Under Montana law, however, he becomes eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of his time.
“They keep saying he’s a pillar of the community, but he took my only son,” Abel Bennett said. “He killed two people – two young people. The maximum sentence on each is 30 years, so that’s 60, and the maximum on the (criminal endangerment charges) is 10 each, so that’s another 20. That’s 80 years total he could get, but out of the 80, he’ll do 10, tops.”
The Bennetts said they asked Zimmerman to push for a plea agreement that would result in 15-year sentences on each of the vehicular homicide charges, rather than the five apiece it calls for.
Zimmerman did not return phone messages left for him both Wednesday and Thursday, but Pavlik’s attorney, Lance Jasper of Missoula, said the plea agreement calls for a sentence that is not only consistent with ones handed down in similar cases in Montana, but harsher than most.
“The sentence Lance Pavlik would receive is harsher than the average sentence in these cases,” Jasper said. Pavlik pleaded guilty during his initial appearance, Jasper said, “because he didn’t want to drag the victims’ families through a trial, and to hold himself accountable, too.”
Pavlik, 45, would remain under the supervision of the state until the age of 75 under the proposed sentence, Jasper said, adding, “and if he screws up once, he goes back to prison.”
The state makes available information involving hundreds of sentences and plea agreements in criminal cases, including vehicular homicide while under the influence, and Jasper said attorneys on both sides look at those with similar circumstances so that plea agreements maintain a consistency.
A March 4 crash involving a drunken driver on Hillview Way in Missoula who killed two people and injured a third resulted in a plea agreement where – although the details of the agreement are significantly different – the end result would be a similar 10-year sentence for the 21-year-old driver.
Justin Leshai Barber would also be eligible for parole after serving one-fourth of his sentence, and his attorneys have indicated they will seek a more lenient arrangement at his Feb. 1 sentencing.
“In Great Falls there was a case where someone hit the front of a bar and killed three people, and this is harsher than the sentence in that case,” Jasper said. “Out in eastern Montana there was a case where two people were killed, and this is stricter than that sentence.”
Pavlik would also be required to make annual presentations on the dangers of drinking and driving in Sanders County high schools for 10 years after his release.
“This is not a plea agreement made up out of thin air,” Jasper said. “It’s right in the statistical average of what people get in this situation.”
“I’m disappointed,” Judy Bennett said. “We were told out of 10 years total, he’d probably do five. That’s 2 1/2 years for each life. And why suspend all 10 years on the kids?”
Jeremiah Bennett’s two children, 4-year-old Mya and 2-year-old Abel, both strapped in child safety seats in the rear seat of the 1994 Saturn their father was driving, were seriously injured in the crash with Pavlik’s 2009 Toyota Tacoma pickup on Prospect Creek Road near Thompson Falls.
That resulted in the two criminal endangerment charges. The accident occurred approximately 20 minutes before midnight on Sept. 8.
Jackson, Jeremiah Bennett’s 23-year-old fiancée, was pronounced dead at the scene. Jeremiah, 32, who worked as the deli manager at a Thompson Falls grocery store, was pronounced dead at Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains.
Pavlik was also taken to the Plains hospital with injuries that were not disclosed. Court documents say he denied drinking anything other than “a couple of O’Doul’s,” a nonalcoholic drink, to authorities while in the hospital, and agreed to a Montana Highway Patrol trooper’s request to have his blood drawn and tested several hours after the crash.
Pavlik’s blood alcohol content registered 0.11 at that time, above the legal limit of 0.08, and the state subsequently subpoenaed hospital records pertaining to an analysis of Pavlik’s blood shortly after he had been admitted.
That showed a BAC of 0.245, or more than three times the legal limit.
“I don’t understand why he wasn’t arrested right then,” Abel Bennett said.
Pavlik had earlier been convicted of driving under the influence in Gallatin County in February 2011.
Pavlik made arrangements to present himself to Sanders County authorities after the felony charges were announced about three months after the crash, Jasper said, and where he was booked and released.
“He got to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family,” Judy Bennett said. “We didn’t get to spend them with our son. I think people forget (Jeremiah) had two beautiful children, and he loved Christina and wanted to have children with her. That’s not going to happen now.”
Both Bennetts, who live in Pueblo, Colo., broke down crying several times during separate telephone interviews. They said they traveled to Montana from Colorado for Pavlik’s initial appearance in December only to see it postponed to January, and were unable to get time off from work to be in court when he did plead guilty.
“We wake up thinking about our son, and go to bed thinking about him,” Judy said. “It’s a 24-hour thing. Neither of us has slept a whole night since the night he was killed. Seeing my son in the morgue was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
People in Thompson Falls were wonderful to them when they arrived from Colorado after getting the news of the crash, the Bennetts said.
“The motel was booked, but the people at the motel had a friend who had a cabin and let us stay there,” Abel Bennett said. “Everyone treated us like they’d known us forever, like we were family. There must have been 400 or 500 people at the memorial service and the things that were said – talk about making a parent proud. It was amazing and unforgettable the way they talked about our son and Christina.”
The Bennetts said the $7,267.07 in restitution also called for in the plea agreement only covered funeral expenses for both families, and has already been paid by Pavlik’s insurance company.
“When Mr. Zimmerman said he wouldn’t (try for a plea agreement with a longer prison sentence), we brought up a fine,” Judy said. “If you’re not going to do that, fine him. He told us Lance didn’t have much. That’s not the point.”
Each of the four felonies Pavlik pleaded guilty to carry potential fines of up to $50,000.
Jasper said Pavlik was fully insured at the time of the accident, and there are “no out-of-pocket costs that wouldn’t be covered. Restitution is not an issue.”
Sentencing involves both punitive and rehabilitative components, Jasper said, “and there’s nothing that says he can’t come out of this and be a productive member of society. The negative is he had a prior DUI. The positives are, when you look at his life, he’s been an exemplary member of the community who’s not likely to re-offend. He’s been engaged and proactive in alcohol and grief counseling, and if he ever violates any terms or breaks the law for the next 30 years, he’ll be sent up for the full amount.”
A not guilty plea “could have kicked this case out another year” Jasper said, but his client owned up to his mistake the first time he appeared before a judge.
“There is nothing else Lance Pavlik could have done to hold himself more accountable,” Jasper said. “Nothing.”
To the Bennetts, “Five years seems pretty light,” Abel Bennett said. “He did plead guilty and I read where they said we could start to heal now, but there’s not going to be any healing. It’s going to take a long, long time to get over this.”
McNeil, who is not bound by the plea agreement, is scheduled to sentence Pavlik on March 12.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.