|Michael Ware (Center)|
Friday, September 4, 2015
Father of underage driver in Council Rock South triple fatal gets 6½ to 16 years
HONESDALE, Wayne County — “I hate you.”
Joe Keffer said he rarely uses the word “hate” to describe his feelings. But it is the one he chose to direct at the New York man who let his underage, unlicensed teenage daughter drive on the day she was involved in an accident that killed Keffer’s 15-year-old son Cullen and two of Cullen’s friends, all incoming Council Rock South sophomores.
“I reserve hate for the most egregious things in this world,” Keffer told Michael Ware, 54, of Scarsdale, during his victim impact statement Thursday at Ware’s sentencing. “Mr. Ware, I hate you.”
In an emotionally charged sentencing hearing before a packed court room in Wayne County, Judge Raymond Hamill sentenced Ware to 6½ to 16 years in state prison and ordered him to pay more than $73,000 in restitution to the families of the three boys. His attorney vowed to appeal the sentence.
“This sentence under all circumstances is ridiculous,” Robert Reno said.
Ware pleaded guilty last month to three counts each of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment — admitting he gave permission to his daughter Julia to drive his 2001 Chevrolet Suburban on Aug. 30, the day of the accident. He initially told state police his daughter took the vehicle without his knowledge.
At his sentencing Thursday, Ware expressed remorse, telling the families he will never be able to feel the loss they experienced.
“Neither I nor my daughter Julia meant any harm that day,” Ware said. “May the boys rest in peace.”
Ware’s statement came after emotional victim impact statements from Keffer and the families of the other two victims — Shamus Digney and Ryan Lesher, also both 15 — who died following a rollover accident after they accepted a ride from Ware’s then-15-year-old daughter Julia.
Lisa Lesher in a statement directed at Ware said she will never understand why he let his daughter drive his SUV the morning of the accident, not once but twice. She lost control of the SUV on Goosepond Road, rolling it over and injuring herself, another 15-year-old girl, Ryan Keim, also from Northampton, and killing the three boys.
“You even had the audacity to ask her to bring home a breakfast sandwich,” Lesher said, her voice often cracking. “Your desire to be the ‘cool’ dad devastated our entire community. How could a father allow this?”
Charles Digney also chastised Ware, calling him responsible for the circumstances that led up to the accident and too “lazy” to drive his daughter. He spoke about how at the accident scene his severely injured son Shamus had to be held down by witnesses and first responders because he wanted to help his friends.
“Shamus was taken away from us in an incredibly selfish act. How dare you think you are above the law,” Digney said. “Your complete lack of common sense amazes me. From this moment forth, I don’t think you can call yourself a dad.”
Keffer described the “ripples of grief” the boys’ deaths have had on the community as well as their families. All three boys were the youngest in their respective families. Keffer talked about that constant backdrop of sorrow that hangs over his family.
“We were all robbed last Aug. 30,” Keffer said. “And ironically grand larceny wasn’t among the charges.”
Still, Ware’s attorney urged Hamill to ignore the presentencing report recommendations of five to 15 years in prison, calling it “excessive.” Reno emphasized that his client did not give his daughter permission to drive four other passengers the day of the accident, and he had no way of knowing she would pick up the boys.
He emphasized that Ware’s only crime was allowing his daughter to drive with one passenger, her 15-year-old friend. Reno urged Hamill to impose a 12- to 23-month sentence in the Wayne County jail.
“Mr. Ware is a dad. He is not turning in his dad card today,” Reno said. “Mr. Ware is not an evil dad who only cares about himself. What has to come out of this case is healing.”
But Hamill was not moved. The judge didn’t hold back his emotions before handing down his sentence. At times his voice broke with anger and he was almost pounding on the bench. He repeatedly called Ware’s actions reckless, stupid, irresponsible, preventable and selfish.
“Julia put more miles on your car that weekend than you did,” Hamill said.
He quoted presentencing material from the county probation department in which Ware claimed he thought it would be OK to let Julia drive because she was in a sparsely populated area. He also claimed his father let him drive when he was 14, Hamill said.
The judge noted that he reviewed letters on his behalf that described him as a good worker, trustworthy and loving father, who also cared for his 85-year-old mother who has dementia. He pointed out he reviewed the 35 victim impact statements from family and friends of the three boys.
“Your failure to be a father and say no caused these tragic deaths,” Hamill said. “A car is a deadly weapon as the families of Cullen, Shamus and Ryan know well.”
Hamill expressed exasperation that Ware had his teenage daughter take full responsibility for the accident for 60 days, noting the truth didn’t come out until Julia’s friend told police that Ware gave Julia permission to drive.
“You never spoke the truth and you let your daughter bear this alone,” Hamill said. “How? How does any parent do that? I don’t believe a word you say.”
Wayne County District Attorney Janine Edwards, who prosecuted Ware and his daughter Julia, expressed satisfaction with the sentence. Ware faced a potential maximum prison sentence of 21 years.
“Since the beginning of this case, it’s been very clear to the judge and to me this was a very serious matter that needed to be taken seriously,” Edwards said. “As a parent I think this struck a chord with everyone in the courtroom. This was such a preventable crime.”
“Today’s sentence is absolutely a message,” Edwards added.
Julia Ware, the four boys and the other 15-year-old girl went to breakfast that morning at a nearby barbecue restaurant and, on the return trip, Julia was speeding, failed to negotiate a turn, lost control of the vehicle and flipped it in Paupack Township, near the Lake Wallenpaupack resort community where they were staying for the Labor Day weekend, according to court documents.
Julia Ware, now 16, of Pleasantville, New York, was charged as a juvenile and also admitted guilt in the fatal accident. She received no jail time and instead was sentenced to community service, indefinite probation and ordered to pay restitution.
Her father, described as the “fun parent,” did not attend any of her court appearances. He and Julia’s mother have been divorced since Julia was 2.
Among those in the courtroom were Marie Drobnicki. The fatal accident occurred right outside her home on Goosepond Road.
“I’m just hopeful the families can get some closure,” Drobnicki said after the sentencing. “I was hoping this would give me a little closure, too. It hurts so much. Every day I walk out to my mailbox I can see the accident scene there. I’ll never get over this.”
Following the hearing, Keffer and Ed Lesher both expressed satisfaction with the sentence.
“I’m not a hateful person. I don’t engage in hate, but somebody’s negligence takes away your son’s life. His direct actions took my son away and how can you not hate someone who does that?” Keffer said. “Mr. Ware will not have to endure a lifetime of misery that our three families and ourselves will.”
Lesher said that Ware serving jail time brings him a little closure, but that he is not done with the case. He plans to seek a retrial for Julia Ware.
“We got him. He is being punished,” Lesher said. “She got off too easy. She should be punished, too.”