COLUMBIA — The mood was somber Monday during the sentencing hearing of a Mexico, Mo., truck driver who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for colliding with and killing a Salisbury woman in April.
Donald R. Thompson, 48, pleaded guilty to first-degree involuntary manslaughter in an October hearing. Thompson was charged in April after he drove his 2001 Dodge pickup truck the wrong way on U.S. 63, north of Columbia, and struck a car driven by Heidi J. Strodtman, who was heading home for the weekend from the University of Missouri-Rolla. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Thompson was intoxicated at the time of the accident with a blood alcohol content level of 0.235, assistant prosecutor Stephanie Morrell said.
Thompson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for first-degree involuntary manslaughter.
In court Monday, Circuit Court Judge Jodie Asel appeared surprised that Thompson had no prior criminal record despite a light traffic infraction. “How does this man get to 48 years of age and have no alcohol offense?” Asel said as she sentenced Thompson.
Asel said the aggregating factors were numerous.
“Mr. Thompson passed eight exits on the highway — eight opportunities to realize he was going the wrong way on the highway,” Asel said. “He was absolutely oblivious to the other people that night on the highway.”
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks recommended the maximum sentence. Hicks said the accident was more than a mistake, saying that Thompson intentionally became intoxicated before getting into his car and driving.
“There were intentional aspects to this crime,” Hick said. “There were dire consequences for that night.”
Hicks talked about the negative impact the accident had on the family and said that he feared people sometimes become desensitized.
“I think what gets lost is what she went through in those dying moments as she was trying to get home,” Hicks said. He then presented Asel with photos taken of Strodtman after her accident.
The family members and friends of Strodtman filled all six benches of Asel’s courtroom. They embraced and cried as family members of Stodtman shared their memories of Strodtman.
Strodtman’s mother, Debra Strodtman, showed the courtroom artwork her daughter had done over the years, from a snowman Strodtman had made in pre-school to a card she had decorated as a senior in high school.
“As you can tell from the people who are here, she was loved,” said Strodtman.
The weeping escalated as Strodtman’s father, Bruce, recounted the accident that he said was the worst day of his life.
“Life after Heidi’s death has truly been a struggle,” Strodtman’s father said.
Some family members seemed angry.
“I hope Mr. Thompson understands the magnitude of the consequences of what he did and will never put himself in a position to harm anyone, including himself, again,” said Strodtman’s sister-in law Erin Strodtman.
Strodtman’s family enumerated the effects her death had left on the family.
“Our family dynamic has changed,” said Strodtman’s sister Katie Hammond. “She was the balance — the glue that held everything together.”
The vivid accounts of Strodtman by her family and the strong presence of friends and family made Strodtman’s death seem even more tragic.
“In my 17 years, I’ve never seen a case where the victim was made so real,” Asel said.
Thompson’s girlfriend of 21 years, Tracy Chambers, defended Thompson, saying that he was a kind person who had helped raise her three children.
“He’s not a monster,” Chambers said. “He’ll do anything to help anyone at every time.”
Thompson was emotional and apologized to Strodtman’s family for what he called a “bad judgement.”
“I want to apologize with all my being,” Thompson said. “This will haunt me forever.”
Thompson’s lawyer, James Clampitt, asked Asel for leniency. Clampitt said Thompson had raised three kids, remained with the same woman for 20 years and was not making any excuses for the accident.
“We have two families whose lives were completely and utterly reversed,” Clampitt said.