Family gives testimony before sentencing in ATV crash case
Two families filled a Hubbard County courtroom with tears late Monday as the son of one was sentenced to a year in jail for killing the daughter of the other in an ATV crash.
"I apologize for the wrong decisions I made May 1," a tearful Chad Tabaka told the family of Jessica Christopherson.
"I can't take it back. Jess was my friend and I never intended for this to happen."
"This is a horrible day and there's no other way to put it," said Tabaka's attorney Michael Undem.
The two 31-year-olds were riding on Tabaka's ATV when the four-wheeler slid around a curve in the Paul Bunyan State Forest and crashed headlong into a tree. Christopherson, a Benedict resident, died at the scene.
Tabaka, a Walker resident, asked for Christopherson's family to forgive him. He acknowledged he's been going to counseling for depression caused by the accident and thinks of the mishap every day.
"I'm working on changing my life," he said, "to help people instead of hurt people. To me, I have to make amends any way I can."
Tabaka was legally drunk and driving too fast for the slippery, muddy road conditions, the criminal complaint said.
"Chad, it is time for you to grow up and smarten up," said Christopherson's maternal uncle Gary Gehrke.
Tabaka pled guilty last month to Criminal Vehicular Homicide, a felony punishable by a maximum of 10 years in jail and/or a $20,000 fine.
Instead he will serve a year in the Hubbard County jail followed by a year of electronic home monitoring with an alcohol sensor. He will be on probation 10 years, during which time he cannot use alcohol or drugs, go to bars and must submit to random alcohol testing. He must perform 500 hours of community service and make restitution to Christopherson's heirs.
In actuality, Tabaka received a 57-month sentence stayed for the duration of his probation. He will be eligible for work release during his jail time.
"The sentence is still hanging over his head," said Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne. It will be imposed if Tabaka violates his probation terms.
"This is not the end of your life," Judge John Smith told the defendant. "It's the beginning of a better life."
But Smith warned, "If I see you again it will be a sad day for you."
Smith upped the 48-month sentence both Undem and Dearstyne had requested.
"I made this upward departure because you were given a break on the disposition," the judge noted. But he said justice contains "an element of mercy even for those who have committed wrong."
If Tabaka violates any portion of his probation, he could spend the 57 months in state prison, not a local jail.
Undem said Tabaka had grown up in an environment "where alcohol was prevalent" at every gathering. The day of the accident, all the friends four-wheeling had been drinking much of the time, he said.
Christopherson's aunt Shelli Johnson laid photos of the victim's three daughters on Smith's bench.
"This is the family Chad Tabaka destroyed," Johnson told the judge. She wept as she told the court all three daughters had been separated. Two went to live with fathers they'd never known.
"Three sisters lost their mom and each other," she said.
Christopherson's younger sister Brianne said when she learned of the accident, "My life shattered to pieces." She said the pain of living another 50 or 60 years without her only sister was unbearable.
She urged Tabaka to "share a story with young adults" about drinking and driving "and maybe save a life."
Johnson and Gehrke attended the plea hearing last month and strongly objected, saying it was too lenient. Smith told the attorneys after that hearing if the family didn't unanimously support the deal, he would scuttle it.
Johnson and Gehrke were permitted to look through the county attorney's file and Dearstyne spent time with them explaining the state's sentencing guidelines and which prior convictions could be used against Tabaka. They ultimately agreed with the plea bargain and voiced their approval Monday on the witness stand.
Only a fraction of Tabaka's dismal driving record could be considered in sentencing due to a 10-year time bar, Dearstyne told the family. Tabaka has incurred 20 traffic and liquor-related infractions in three counties since 1997.
"We could have filled this courthouse with all the people who love Jess," Johnson said. The family chose not to bring Christopherson's mother and grandparents to the hearing Monday.
"They'd be screaming for justice," Johnson said, urging courtroom spectators to change the state's drunken driving laws to make them more accountable in situations such as this.
Smith praised the county attorney and law enforcement for reconciling the case in the plea deal.
"It takes a lot of courage" to take such steps, Smith said.
"Mr. Tabaka, you have a great debt to pay," the judge admonished the defendant. "You could be going to prison today. You got a break."
Tabaka was taken immediately into custody.