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The Journal Gazette

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Friday, February 02, 2018 6:40 pm

Huntington man won't have to serve jail time in fatal OWI crash

A Huntington man will not spend time in prison for causing the drunken driving crash in northeast Allen County last year that left two people dead and 13 others injured.

Todd W. James, 52, pleaded guilty in December to two counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, causing the deaths of Harvey M. Schwartz, 21, and Louis E. Schwartz, 17.

Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck sentenced him to four years probation after handing down suspended prison sentences of three years on both of the charges. His drivers license was also suspended for five years.

"I would like to express how sorry I am and will continue to be for the rest of my life," James said Friday in a tearful apology, part of which was read by his attorney because he could not finish.

James was driving a Ford Econoline van with 15 passengers about 2 a.m. Oct. 1, court documents say. He crossed the center line on Indiana 1/Leo Road, north of Stuckey Lane and east of Amstutz Road in Leo-Cedarville, traveled through the yard of a home and slammed into a tree.

The yard was filled with people injured in the crash when investigators arrived, Bryce Sutton of the Allen County Sheriff's Department said in court Friday. Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Adam Mildred said victims had broken bones, a broken nose and head injuries.

"Some were in pain," Sutton said. "Some of them were crying."

Defense attorney Scott Harter admitted his client had alcohol and drugs in his system at the time of the crash. He argued against a prison sentence, saying James has health problems, he and his wife are raising their granddaughter, and incarceration would be a hardship to the family, who relies on his income.

Harter said James, who wept during most of a sentencing hearing Friday in Allen Superior Court, has accepted responsibility for the crime and will live with it for the rest of his life.

"This is nothing that he's going to put behind him," he said.

A plea agreement filed in December called for James to serve no more than six years in prison but left the sentence up to Surbeck. 

Mildred said James should go to prison, arguing he already had been treated with leniency because he was charged with lower-level felonies and was not charged with injuring the other passengers in the van.

Mildred discounted claims by Harter that James has the support of members of the Amish community who he was transporting in October. Mildred said he betrayed their trust by driving drunk and high.

Blood tests taken after the crash revealed alcohol and drugs including painkillers and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. His blood-alcohol level was 0.13 percent, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Mildred said James admitted to drinking and smoking marijuana daily for nearly 40 years.

"Two people are dead because of what he chose to do," he said. "He shouldn't have been behind the wheel."

Surbeck – citing James's health, the hardship on his family and the support of the Amish community – said the case was a difficult one.

"I see little or nothing to be accomplished by incarceration," he said.

Members of James's family, many of whom were crying, thanked Surbeck as he stood to leave the courtroom Friday.

"God bless you, sir," one woman said.