Man sentenced to 2 years in prison for Devils Lake boat crash that killed 1

Body: 

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- -District Judge Donovan Foughty quoted an ancient Greek playwright before sentencing a Grand Forks man to spend two years in prison for crashing a boat while driving drunk on Devils Lake, a crash that killed one passenger and injured others.

"He who learns must suffer," Foughty said as he quoted Aeschylus. "And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

Thomas J. Burns, 54, was driving a boat at 2:45 a.m. Aug. 9 on Devils Lake at a high rate of speed--estimated up to 38 mph--just 20 feet from shore when the boat struck a tree sticking out of the lake, according to court documents.

Boat passenger April Stenger, 26, Detroit Lakes, Minn., was pronounced dead at the scene. Passengers Kyle Everson, 26, and Joel Kurtz Jr., 26, both of Devils Lake, and Danielle Brommenschenkel, 40, of Halstad, Minn., were injured.

"Why is it that people keep making stupid mistakes and people suffer and die?" Foughty asked at Burns's sentencing. "Why is it that the tragedy somehow has to happen for us to gain insight and wisdom?"

Burns pleaded guilty in January to manslaughter, a Class B felony, three counts of reckless endangerment, all Class C felonies, and boating under the influence, a Class B misdemeanor.

Burns was sentenced to 10 years in prison with eight years suspended for manslaughter, in addition to two years of supervised probation and  $750 in fees.

He also was sentenced to two years in prison for each of the reckless endangerment charges and 30 days in prison and a $250 fine for boating under the influence. These sentences will be served concurrently with the manslaughter sentence.

"Mr. Burns, you are not an evil man, but you were a man who was criminally negligent on Aug. 9, 2015, and some terrible tragedies occurred because of the way you operated that boat, and, I would also suggest, just some dumb, awful luck," Foughty said. "But the facts are what they are."

Burns was not ordered to pay restitution at his sentencing, as some of the families of the victims in the case have indicated they will be filing civil lawsuits against Burns, the prosecution said.

Because of these potential cases, Burns's attorney, Ward Johnson, advised him not to comment at the sentencing hearing. This is standard in this type of situation, Ramsey County State's Attorney Lonnie Olson said.

However, Johnson said Burns does "express his deepest apologies to the families involved" and accepts full responsibility for the damage he caused.

Family members of the victims and Burns cried throughout the sentencing before Burns, dressed in a gray suit, was placed in handcuffs and taken into custody immediately after sentencing.

"Nothing that any court system can do can bring back the life of the deceased young woman and the lives of the three that survived and their families," Olson said.

One of the victims has "severe brain trauma," Olson said, and the last he heard from the victim's family, the victim was "starting to respond from musical stimulation."

"This tragedy did not have to happen," Foughty said. "In fact, as I understand the facts, everyone on that boat had an opportunity to get where they wanted to go by a designated driver."

Burns had a 0.17 blood alcohol concentration, a reading that was taken three hours after driving the boat and after having an IV, "so it would've been, obviously, higher at the time of driving," Olson said.

Foughty said that "to some extent, all of the people on that boat are responsible for what happened," but Olson noted "the driver of the boat is the one who's responsible," ultimately.

"Devils Lake is a very difficult place to operate boats, even in the daylight hours," Olson said. "It's very common to have huge tree stumps floating around in the middle of the lake ... that are waterlogged and barely floating at the surface."

Before Burns was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Foughty made one last comment to Burns.

"I really do wish somehow that you're going to be able to find some peace," Foughty said.

"Thank you," Burns replied.