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Judge orders Duluth hit-and-run driver to go directly to jail

Hit-and-run victim Alex Balluff (center) is surrounded by family, friends and supporters after leaving the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth on Monday afternoon. Balluff attended the sentencing of Julie Ann Gronski, the woman who hit him as he walked along Rice Lake Road. (Steve Kuchera /

Julie Ann Gronski stood and without any prodding put her arms behind her back waiting to be handcuffed and led from a St. Louis County courtroom Monday afternoon.

Gronski, 27, of Duluth was sentenced to nine months in jail, six years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service -- which will include time talking to others about the dangers of drinking and driving -- after pleading guilty to driving drunk on Oct. 31 and causing permanent traumatic brain injuries to 18-year-old Alex Balluff.

Balluff is a 2009 St. Francis High School honor student and a two-sport athletic standout who had just started his college career when Gronski struck him as he walked along Rice Lake Road. Balluff, his parents and his friends told the court that, in essence, Gronski's careless actions handcuffed him in such a way that he will be hindered for the rest of his life.

Balluff has no short-term memory, his mother, Debbie, said. She and her son read Alex's victim impact statement from cue cards with large print to explain how the accident has devastated his life.

Alex said he needs 24 hours of supervised care daily. He undergoes physical, speech and occupational therapy and counseling. The basketball player who was once his high school's top shooter from long range now has blurred vision because of his brain injury.

"I will never get to go to college," he told the court. "I can no longer play sports. I can no longer hang out with my friends and play sports. ... I'll never be able to get married and have children because of my memory and disability.

"Being a victim has ruined my family's life, including my own life. ... Julie Ann Gronski should go to jail for life because that is how it has affected my life."

Alex closed his victim impact statement by saying that when Gronski gets out of jail he wants her to live in an apartment with people with poor memories so that she can help them. He then walked back to his seat where his father, Mike, was standing. The two hugged.

Duluth defense attorney David Malban told the court that Gronski never felt sorry for herself. "She was sorry for what she had done and sorry for Alex," he said. The case was prosecuted by Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Smith.

Judge Shaun Floerke asked Gronski if she had anything to say to the court.

"From the bottom of my heart, my heart aches for Alex and his family," Gronski said. "I just hope that you can find some peace. I'm just very sorry."

If Gronski doesn't follow the conditions of her probation, she faces a 24-month prison sentence, six months longer than sentencing guidelines call for. She already has completed alcohol dependency treatment and told the court she has not consumed alcohol since the accident.

Sometimes nonviolent defendants are allowed time to settle personal matters before turning themselves in to jail days or weeks after sentencing. Floerke told Gronski she would be going immediately to jail. "He (Balluff) didn't get to pick his day (that his life changed) and you are not going to get to pick yours, OK?" Floerke said.

Under sentencing guidelines, Gronski qualified for a stayed probationary sentence and no prison time. Had Balluff died -- he was in critical condition for weeks -- Gronski would have faced a four-year prison sentence.

Floerke suggested that the injuries Gronski inflicted on her victim barely fit the definition of "great bodily harm." That definition, Floerke said, encompasses "everything from a lost tooth and a long scar to what you've done. And what you did to this young man is on the farthest reaches of the scale."

Gronski testified at her plea hearing last month that she drank a dozen beers and up to 15 shots of alcohol the night that she hit Balluff from behind. She 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 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 said she thought she hit a deer. She didn't remember anything else.

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 arm injury.

Gronski pleaded guilty 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.

Floerke also sentenced Gronski to 1,000 hours of community service work, which he said could include working with Patty Wheeler, Mothers Against Drunk Driving victims' advocate.

Wheeler said Monday night that she thinks Gronski could be valuable in speaking to other offenders and also in talking to youth about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"Sometimes they [offenders] can relate to an offender, more than a victim," Wheeler said. "But nothing that they go through is anything like what the victim and their families go through."