HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS — In an emotional sentencing hearing, the 14th Judicial District Court Judge Mary Hoak rejected a plea agreement for Lucas Paul Ackerman, in which he would have served one year in jail for DUI and had a four-year deferred judgment on one count of vehicular homicide and four counts of vehicular assault.
“I find that this plea bargain diminishes the seriousness of this crime,” Hoak said. “This is a hefty crime. Someone’s life was lost. People were seriously injured. The defendant had a high blood-alcohol content, I could venture as far as a very high blood alcohol content.
“It sends the wrong message to society and to this community,” Hoak continued. “It says it’s OK to drink and drive and kill someone as long as it wasn’t your fault. And that is not the message this court can send to this community.”
Hoak handed down the judgment following testimony in support of the plea agreement from family members of the deceased, including widow Debbie Westley. The family cited reasons of faith and forgiveness for why they wanted the court to accept the plea deal.
“We believe it sends a strong signal to Mr. Ackerman with the plea bargain,” Westley said. “We don’t want revenge.
“No one comprehends the severity any greater than I do as the surviving wife that will live the rest of my life alone and my children who are fatherless,” Westley said.“...We have come here today for closure and our faith is the most valuable gift we have been given and we choose forgiveness and would like to see it end today.”
The charges and plea agreement spawn from a July 4 crash that took place near Grand Lake on Highway 34, in which Ackerman hit and killed one pedestrian and seriously injured four others while driving under the influence.
Ackerman hit and killed Gregory Westley, of Estes Park, and injured Debbie Westly and three of the Westley children who were 18, 10, and 3 years old at the time. Ackerman’s blood alcohol content was reportedly nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.
While an investigation of the crash site by the Colorado State Patrol determined the Westley family was in the roadway at the time of the accident and failed to yield to right of way of Ackerman’s vehicle, Colorado law places strict liability on any driver who causes injury or death while driving under the influence.
“I understand why the bargain was struck, and I understand the accident reconstruction, but the law accounts for that and the law says that there need not be evidence of fault,” Hoak said. “It is drinking and driving and it is strict liability.”
The 14th Judicial District hearing took place at the Grand County Courthouse.
The district attorney may now choose to dismiss the case, choose to negotiate another plea agreement, or take the case to trial. The next hearing is set for March 25.
Look for a more detailed story on the hearing online and in the Wednesday, March 5, Sky-Hi News.
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334