|Shamus Digney, Cullen Keffer and Ryan Lesher|
Monday, June 1, 2015
No jail time for underage driver in crash that killed 3 Council Rock South boys
Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2015
The New York teen responsible for the deaths of three Council Rock South students in a rollover accident last year during Labor Day weekend must write a 2,000 word essay and letters of apology to the victims’ families plus perform 300 hours of community service.
But 16-year-old Julia Ware, of Pleasantville, will not serve time in a juvenile detention or other residential treatment center.
Instead she will remain on indefinite probation, will not be able to drive, and continue with weekly mental health counseling, according to Wayne County Judge Raymond Hamill, who presided over the girl’s hearing in juvenile court Tuesday.
In his decision, Hamill accepted the recommendations of the county’s Juvenile Probation Office, which included requiring Julia to pay in excess of $44,000 in restitution to the three families as well as pay for counseling for the families. Julia’s parents were ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution. Her essay will focus on the impact her crime has had on the families as well as herself.
The judge told the court he didn’t believe Julia belonged in a state juvenile detention center with serious and repeat offenders.
The father of Ryan Lesher, one of the three boys who died, disagreed.
“She got off too easy,” Ed Lesher said after the proceedings.
Joe Keffer, whose son Cullen also died in the accident, believes Julia has learned a “valuable life lesson.”
“She understands that she hurt a lot of people and created a lot of sadness and misery,” he said after the hearing.
Julia’s attorney, John Stieh, said the emotional and repentant teen in the courtroom was a sincere reflection of his client.
“Maybe she is not behind bars, but she is in a dark, dark place and it’s a nasty place that she has put herself in, in her own head, and she is going to be in that dark, nasty place for I don’t know how long,” he said after the hearing.
The court ruling followed an emotional hour of testimony from family members of two of the three boys and of Julia Ware, who read an emotional statement telling the court she wished she had died in the accident.
“I wish I didn’t feel everyone labels me as a killer,” Julia said. “I made a mistake I cannot fix. I want you to know how sorry I am.”
Tuesday’s court appearance was a disposition hearing, the equivalent of a sentencing in adult court. Last month, in the same courtroom, Ware admitted to five charges, including three counts of felony homicide by vehicle related to the Aug. 30 accident that killed Shamus Digney, Cullen Keffer and Ryan Lesher, all 15, and injured two others.
Sadness hung heavy inside the standing-room-only courtroom, where even the judge became emotional. He told the court he read every victim impact statement, several times.
“The pain in this courtroom is palpable,” Hamill added.
Lisa Lesher read her victim impact statement directly to Julia, telling her that she cannot understand the devastation her actions caused in the Council Rock community.
“You have no idea how many people were affected,” Lesher said, her voice often choked with emotion.
She described her youngest of four sons as a two-sport athlete who worked with special needs children. He was scheduled to attend all honors and advanced placement classes his sophomore year.
“But the best part of him is his huge heart,” Lisa Lesher said. “You robbed our family, our friends, our school and our community. He was the light of our lives and you snuffed that light out. We have a life sentence without our Ryan.”
Morgan Digney, sister of Shamus Digney, told Julia that her younger brother lived every day like it was his birthday and asked that she find a way to honor his life and the lives of the two other boys.
“We don’t hate you,” she said, adding that her family didn’t want to see another life destroyed.
Wayne County Probation Officer Fran Dente, who oversaw Julia’s case, said the 10th-grader had no prior criminal history and is not a discipline problem at home or school. She made honor roll recently in school.
Julia has also taken responsibility for her actions, Dente said.
Julia’s aunt, a family friend and her mother all spoke on her behalf, as well, calling her a sweet girl who is haunted by her actions on the day of the accident.
“I know Julia is so sorry,” said her aunt, Ingrid Gori. “Julia’s life has been changed forever. Our hearts are broken for you.”
The three also mentioned how Julia’s father — Michael Ware — has not been a financial or authoritative presence in her life, describing him as the “fun parent” to be around. Ware and Britta Cleveland have been divorced 14 years.
“He never did grow up,” Cleveland said in her statement to the judge.
Ware, 53, of Scarsdale, is awaiting trial on three counts of involuntary manslaughter, endangering the welfare of children, false reports and related charges in connection with the fatal accident. He is free on $100,000 unsecured bail while awaiting trial, which hasn’t been scheduled yet. It could get underway in July. He did not attend Tuesday’s hearing for his daughter.
Authorities say that Ware allowed his daughter to drive his 2001 Chevy Suburban with another underage friend and the three boys to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. He asked Julia to bring him back a breakfast sandwich, authorities said.
Julia’s mother told the court that not a day goes by that she doesn’t feel guilty or selfish that her daughter survived the crash. She told the court she called the Council Rock High School South grief counselor and asked if there was anything she could do for the families.
Cleveland said that her daughter is not the same girl since the accident. She spends a lot of time in her room alone and has trouble sleeping. She is nervous riding in the backseats of cars.
“She has admitted she wishes she died in the accident,” Cleveland said.
In her statement Tuesday, a tearful Julia said that she couldn’t imagine what the families are feeling. She dreams about the accident. She has flashbacks at school or when she is with friends. Her life now is surreal, she said. She fears for her future.
She said she wants to start a charity in honor of Ryan, Shamus and Cullen.
“I know I shouldn’t have been driving,” she said. “I know there is nothing I can do to bring them back.”
Julia, who was charged as a juvenile and initially faced 12 offenses, also admitted to two misdemeanor counts of accidents involving death or injury as an unlicensed driver. The seven other offenses were dropped in exchange for her admission last month.
Juvenile court proceedings are typically closed to the public, but Julia’s case fell under an exception since she was at least 14 at the time of the accident and her crimes would have been graded as felonies in adult court.
The Pennsylvania State Police, who handled the accident investigation, said that day wasn’t the first time Julia got behind the wheel of a car without a license. A day earlier, Julia’s father allowed her to drive from their suburban New York City home to a vacation home on Lake Wallenpaupak, according to court documents.
State police say Michael Ware lied about Julia taking the SUV without his permission. The police investigation found Ware gave his daughter permission to drive the day of the accident and at other times, authorities said.
Witnesses interviewed after the accident told troopers they saw a dark SUV speeding down a hill in the 3000 block of Goosepond Road, near St. Mary Church Road, before hearing a loud crash.
The accident scene is near the resort community of Wallenpaupak Lake Estates, where both the Ware and Lesher families have vacation homes. Ed Lesher was staying with the four boys at the home for the Labor Day weekend.
Ryan Keim, who was injured in the accident, told investigators that Julia was “flying” and he and his friends told her to “slow down,” court documents note.
The teen girl passenger told police she and Julia went to Dunkin’ Donuts around 9:30 a.m. and then returned to the Ware house, before going to the Lesher home to pick up the boys and drive to a nearby barbecue restaurant. On the return trip, as the SUV rounded a turn, the front passenger side tire went off the road and onto the grass, then the vehicle flipped and landed on the driver’s side, the passenger told police.
Michael Ware appeared at the accident scene shortly afterward and told state police he was in the house cleaning when his daughter took the SUV without his knowledge, according to court documents. He reportedly told police he had allowed her to drive the vehicle only on private roads in the resort under his supervision.
Initially, Julia backed up her father’s story, telling authorities she took the vehicle without his permission to the nearby barbecue restaurant, the affidavit said.
Two months after the accident, an attorney representing the female teen passenger notified state police that his client told him Michael Ware let Julia drive the SUV to Pennsylvania once they were outside New York City, according to the affidavit. The teen also claimed Michael Ware walked the two girls to the car before they left for the restaurant the day of the accident.
Julia, through her attorney, later submitted a written statement that indicated she had her father’s permission to drive the SUV to Dunkin’ Donuts and then the barbecue restaurant.
Julia also said that when her dad showed up at the accident scene, she overheard him tell police he didn’t know Julia took the car so “she (and the teen girl passenger) thought they were supposed to say they had the car without permission so as not to get him in trouble,” court documents allege.