On the surface, it doesn’t seem like justice – a 30-day jail sentence for an unlicensed driver who struck and killed a young mother in Chandler while seriously injuring her two small children.
But it was the maximum sentence Chandler Municipal Court Judge Gary LaFleur could mete out to defendant William Epperlein in the tragic Nov. 16, 2016, death of Pamela Hesselbacher.
Hesselbacher had visited a nearby park with her children and was walking home with them for dinner when Epperlein ran a red light and struck them on Ray Road and College in west Chandler.
While the circumstances were heartbreaking, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office ruled that they did not rise to the level of a felony because Epperlein was not impaired, was not speeding and had not fled, avoiding a potential hit and run charge.
Alex Gonzalez, Epperlein’s defense attorney, said the sun was setting, restricting Epperlein’s vision. The driver also was distracted by a car next to him.
“The light cycled, he wasn’t paying attention and he didn’t see the victims,’’ Gonzalez said. “He is guilty of the offense even though he intended to harm no one.’’
But LaFleur didn’t buy Gonzalez’s request for a suspended sentence, or the defendant’s father’s explanation that it was merely a tragic accident.
“This is a tragic situation. Nothing we can do can make people whole again,’’ LaFleur said. “The court does not view this as a random act. You made a conscious decision to drive when you did not have the right to do so.’’
LaFleur also ordered $30,000 in restitution, the highest amount possible, on the misdemeanor charges of causing an accident with serious injuries or death and driving on a suspended license.
He was fined $1,869; his license was suspended for 180 days; and he was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service.
LaFleur also placed Epperlein on probation for one year. Epperlein was not taken into custody immediately but was ordered to surrender at a future date.
Epperlein’s license had been suspended when he failed to keep expensive insurance that was required after he was convicted of driving under the influence. Epperlein was driving his roommate’s truck during the collision.
“You put yourself above the law, above the right of Pamela Hesselbacher’s children to have their mother,’’ LaFleur said. “Hopefully, this will cause you to change your pattern of conduct.’’
LaFleur said he also is hoping that other people learn from the tragic case and decide not to drive after their license is suspended.
Matt Hesselbacher, Pamela’s widower, quietly addressed LaFleur in a hushed tone before the sentencing. He is raising the children, Audrey and Ryan, with the assistance of family members.
The children survived their severe injuries but have suffered physically and emotionally.
“I lost my loving wife,’’ Matt Hesselbacher said. “She was the person they loved most in the world. For them to never see her again while they are growing up is very tragic.’’
William Epperlein, the defendant’s father, turned to face the Hesselbacher family and apologized on his son’s behalf.
“I would like to say I am very sorry for what’s happened. It’s a terrible thing,’’ Epperlein’s father said. “I am very sorry and I wish you all the best.’’
He said his son has been wrongfully portrayed in media reports.
“We all have to remember this is an accident, a terrible accident,’’ Epperlein’s father said. “You make my son look like a monster. That’s not true at all. He’s a gentle, kind person.’’
Jodi Kieran, Pamela’s mother, worked tirelessly for the passage of Pam’s Law, which requires longer sentences for collisions that result in death.
Their efforts eventually culminated in the passage of HB 2522, which makes it a felony, carrying a 3½-year sentence, to seriously injure or kill someone while driving on a suspended license.
A defendant’s license must be suspended because of failure to have proof of insurance after an arrest on driving under the influence charges.
Kieran was grateful to LaFleur for the sentence, which was what she requested. She said she could tell from the judge’s voice that he was moved by the tragedy, as was the community as a whole.
“Now, we can look at our grandchildren and tell them we did everything possible to make it right for their mother,’’ Kieran said. “There’s no erasing what was done. At least it’s a step forward.’’