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Duluth woman enters plea in hit-and-run case that left honor student brain damaged

Julie Ann Gronski

Only Julie Ann Gronski knows whether she was aware she had struck someone Oct. 31 when she left 18-year-old Alex Balluff lying critically injured on the side of Rice Lake Road.

But Gronski presented strong evidence Monday that she didn't have a clue what she was doing when she got behind the wheel of her Honda CRV that night and caused permanent brain damage to the 2009 St. Francis High School honor student, a two-sport athletic standout who had just started his college career.

Gronski, 28, of Duluth, testified in a St. Louis County courtroom that she drank a dozen beers and up to

15 shots of alcohol before getting behind the wheel and changing Balluff's life forever.

Balluff suffered a traumatic brain injury and contusions to his right kidney and spleen. Nicholas Biser, a friend walking with Balluff, was hit by the side mirror of Gronski's vehicle and sustained an elbow injury.

Gronski pleaded guilty Monday to criminal vehicular operation resulting in great bodily harm to Balluff. She also pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular operation resulting in bodily harm to Biser and careless driving.

Under the terms of a plea agreement reached between St. Louis County prosecutor Jessica Smith and defense attorney David Malban, five other crimes against Gronski were dismissed, including failing to stop and remain at the scene and provide information.

Judge Shaun Floerke ordered that an Arrowhead Regional Corrections Officer conduct an investigation of Gronski's background before the court decides whether to accept the plea agreement.

If the court accepts the plea agreement, Gronski will receive a stayed sentence of two years -- six months longer than the guideline stayed sentence -- and serve nine months in a jail setting, along with whatever other probationary conditions the court imposes.

Gronski started the night of Oct. 30 drinking at the establishment where she worked as a waitress and then drove to a nearby bar. She said the volume of alcohol she drank that night was what she would drink on a routine weekend night.

She said she didn't recall getting into her vehicle. She remembered being behind the wheel for a split second and remembered something hitting her windshield. She didn't remember anything else.

She said she thought she hit a deer.

Balluff had a smile on his face and talked to just about anyone who came his way Monday in the courthouse. But he turned serious when asked to talk about the accident and how his life has changed.

"It is a tragedy in my family because they don't have a normal life now because I have to have 24-hour supervision," he said.

His feelings toward Gronski?

"I want her to sit in jail for life even though she won't get that because she didn't kill me," he said.

When told that Gronski has expressed her remorse to her attorney and to others for what she did, Balluff said:

"She was drunk so I don't care how she feels. If she was drunk and didn't drive then I wouldn't care. If I was hit by a non-drunk person then it's not really their fault, it's probably mine."

Balluff's aunt, Katherine Taylor, a home builder from Loretto, Minn., said a drunk driver destroyed her nephew's dreams.

"The Alex that we knew before was every parent's dream teenager," Taylor said. "The Alex that we have today is impaired for life. He has no memory. He cannot retain current conversations or activities. He will require parental care for the rest of his life and the career that he once dreamed of cannot be."

While Malban said Gronski has expressed extreme remorse to him, Monday's hearing wasn't the place for her to express it, he said. She will do that when she is sentenced, he said. Malban said his client has completed alcohol dependency treatment and has not drunk alcohol since the accident.