Man gets 43 years in deaths of five

The Baltimore Sun

A man who was drunk on beer and tequila when he drove his pickup truck the wrong way on an Ohio highway, smashing into a minivan and killing a Baltimore County mother and four children returning from a Christmas trip, was sentenced yesterday to more than four decades in prison.

Michael Gagnon, a 24-year-old construction worker who had slipped away from a holiday celebration of his own when he set off toward the interstate, was sentenced in a Toledo, Ohio, courtroom to 43 years in prison for killing the five Parkville residents.

In imposing the sentence, the judge pointed to the man's drinking problem, shown by a blood-alcohol level far beyond the legal limit.

And the father who, along with two other children, survived the crash, told the court of coming home to a house no longer bustling with family.

"I know my life isn't over," Daniel Griffin Jr. said. "But a large part is missing."

In a telephone interview last night, Griffin said that he misses the "absolute perfect family atmosphere."

"It was really nice on a day-to-day basis to come home and feel so loved," he said.

Gagnon also spoke to the court, apologizing.

"In my mind and spirit, I will be serving a life sentence for the pain I've caused," he said.

Back in Maryland, a Mothers Against Drunk Driving official said she approved of the sentence.

"We appreciate the seriousness of this crime and are happy that the judge seemed to understand that as well," said Caroline Cash, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for Maryland and Delaware. "This is just such an unspeakable tragedy. Nothing will bring those children and that mother back, and that is why we work so hard to make sure people understand that [drunken driving] is a 100 percent, completely preventable crime."

Gagnon, of Adrian, Mich., had been drinking with family at a bar on Dec. 30 to celebrate the New Year, ordering five buckets of beer and 10 shots of tequila, a prosecutor said. The man left the bar - telling no one, his brother later said - and went to a Taco Bell restaurant. Gagnon appeared so intoxicated that restaurant workers called police, authorities said, but by then he was on his way toward Interstate 280.

He drove about four miles in the wrong direction, just missing several cars.

Griffin, who was driving the minivan, was returning home to Parkville with his wife and their children from a holiday visit to family in Michigan when Gagnon's truck came around a curve and straight at them. Both vehicles swerved, but the truck sheared off the minivan's passenger-side doors, throwing some of the family members onto the highway among Christmas presents and toys.

The collision killed Griffin's wife, Bethany Griffin, 36; her three daughters, Haley Burkman, 10, Lacie Burkman, 7, and Vadi Griffin, 2 months; and his daughter, Jordan Griffin, 10. Sidney Griffin and Beau Burkman, both then 8, survived.

At the crash scene, Gagnon told a witness, "I'm wasted," said Jeffrey Lingo, the prosecutor in the case.

Gagnon had a blood-alcohol level of 0.25 - more than three times Ohio's legal limit of 0.08. Marijuana was also in his system.

Griffin, 36, and his wife had been married just over a year, but their families had already meshed, he said.

"It was just a really special thing to watch in the short time we did have," he said.

News of the crash rocked the family's community. At the funeral at St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northeast Baltimore, children were given bottles of blowing bubbles and told to use them to send their love to their friends.

The Burkmans have been part of the Carney Elementary School community for more than a decade, Principal Eileen F. Roberta said, as teachers there taught the girls' older brother, Brett, who was not involved in the accident. Three of the children were students at the school at the time of the crash.

The girls were remembered for their cute outfits and braided hair. All of the siblings were remembered for their kind manners.

"We were thinking in the future we would have the little one," Roberta added, referring to the infant that Bethany Griffin had brought to a holiday party not long before the crash.

Carney Elementary recently dedicated a garden to the memory of the girls.

Beau Burkman still attends the school, Roberta said.

Roberta remembered Bethany Griffin as a mother very interested in her children's education and happiness.

"She was very creative and she would make things for partys here that were unique," Roberta said. "On Halloween she always made the kids' costumes."

Griffin recalled that his wife made a fuss over birthdays - something that was missed when Sidney and Beau recently turned 9.

"It's hard now because that's gone, and birthdays are going to be different," he said.

Gagnon's family also expressed anguish over the crash. Within days, his sister issued a statement apologizing on his behalf and expressing sympathy for the victim's friends and family.

Last month, Gagnon pleaded no contest to five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and two counts of aggravated vehicular assault. Under that plea, he faced up to 50 years in prison.

Yesterday, he received seven years for each vehicular homicide count and four years for each assault count.

"You have a drinking problem, and you don't even know it," Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings told Gagnon.

The prosecutor, Lingo, who described the courtroom scene yesterday as "very difficult, very moving and very emotional," said that he was pleased with the judge's decision and believes the victims' family is as well.

"We didn't ask for a particular number of years," he said. "I try not to put a judge in a box in a situation like this. I think it's a harsh sentence, but I think it was a horrific crime, so I think it's appropriate."

For Griffin, the sentencing yesterday brought an end to having to focus on such worries as court dates for the criminal case, he said.

"I don't know about closure so much as I'm happy that today is over, and we got that aspect of this behind us as a family," he said.

He also said he hopes the "stiff sentence" will send a message that drunken driving should be taken more seriously.

"If nothing else, I hope that, based on what was handed down today, it might make people think twice about what they do and the decisions they make," he said.

Griffin now speaks about drunken driving to high school students, who, he said, listen closely.

"Going forward, I just plan on doing as much of that as I can, because I would hate to see this happen to another family, and whatever I can do to prevent that, I'm going to do," he said.

kevin.rector@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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