A 16-year-old Akron girl hadn’t seen her aunt since she collided with a firetruck last July, killing her cousin and another close friend.
She faced her aunt during her sentencing in Summit County Juvenile Court Tuesday, and tearfully apologized for the death of her cousin, 16-year-old LaShae Johnson.
“I do love you so much,” she said to Shoskamika Risper, LaShae’s mother, sobbing. “I’m so sorry that this happened. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Risper, herself battling tears, sadly nodded her head in agreement.
This emotional exchange was part of the teen’s two-hour sentencing that included sobbing, shouting and one family member being asked by a deputy to step out of the courtroom for failing to keep his comments to himself. The crowd wanting to attend the sentencing was so large that not all of them could fit into the courtroom and a few had to wait in the lobby.
Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio ultimately put the teen on probation for one year, but warned that she will send the girl to youth prison if she violates the terms of her probation.
The teen pleaded guilty under an agreement with prosecutors Nov. 8 to one count of aggravated vehicular homicide, a third-degree felony, and one count of aggravated vehicular assault, a fourth-degree felony. The Beacon Journal isn’t naming the girl because of her age.
The crash occurred about 3:45 p.m. July 14 at West Exchange Street and Rhodes Avenue.
Investigators said Fire Engine No. 3 was southbound on Rhodes when a burgundy Chevrolet TrailBlazer going west on Exchange drove through a red light and struck it. The firetruck was headed to training, and did not have its emergency lights or sirens activated.
The SUV spun and smashed against a telephone pole. The teen driver and her passengers were transported to area hospitals. Three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.
LaShae and Briyana Hayes, 15, died from their injuries. Another teen survived, but had lasting injuries.
The driver, who was 15 at the time of the crash, has said she doesn’t remember the crash. She recalls driving past St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, about a mile from the crash occurred. Then, she woke up in the hospital.
Several of LaShae’s family members spoke during the sentencing, highlighting their loss, but also expressing frustration that the driver and her parents haven’t reached out to this side of the family since the crash.
Risper was so overcome by emotion that Lynnette Williams, LaShae’s cousin, read her written statement. Both women wore T-shirts featuring photographs of LaShae.
“I feel like my life has ended,” Risper said in her statement. “I was cheated, I feel. No prom, no grandchildren, no growing old together.”
Risper said she holds no grudge against her niece, but thinks she should help pay for LaShae’s headstone.
“Remember to hug your kids daily,” she advised. “You never know when it could be the last time.”
A victim advocate read a letter written by the mother of the teenage girl who survived the crash. She said her daughter suffered a brain injury and went through rehab to learn to keep her balance and stay focused.
To the driver, the mother said, “We understand this is an accident.” But she also said she has heard that the teen has driven since the crash and this makes her wonder if she doesn’t grasp the severity of what happened.
Juvenile court’s intake department recommended to Teodosio that the teen receive a year of probation.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which handled the case at the request of the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, concurred with this suggestion.
Adam VanHo, the teen’s attorney, said he thought the recommendation was fair, especially considering his client’s lack of a record, her cooperation with police and her remorse. VanHo said he advised the teen and her parents not to reach out to LaShae’s family until the case concluded.
VanHo denied that the teen, who was released to the custody of her parents but has been supervised by the court, has driven since the crash.
As part of the teen’s sentence, Teodosio forbade her from driving until she turns 21. The judge said if she finds out the girl has driven, she will send the teen to prison for a term of between six months and when she turns 21.
Teodosio’s other requirements included that the teen continue counseling, do something in honor of the teens killed in the crash and pay restitution, including helping with the cost of her cousin’s headstone.
Teodosio said she hopes the crash will serve as a warning to other young drivers. She said the teen broke several laws, including driving without a license and with too many young passengers.
“This wasn’t simply an accident,” the judge said. “The laws exist for a reason.”