Top stories of 2016: Drunk drivers decimate local families

On April 23, Stan Ensor was a passenger that was either stopping or slowing down for a construction zone on I-64. Justin Matthew Birdwell, 29, recently pled guilty causing death when operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated with a prior conviction, a level 4 felony.

There had been reports of Birdwell’s erratic driving, but police were not able to find the vehicle before he hit the vehicle Ensor was in. The impact sent Ensor’s vehicle rolling, ejecting and killing him.

Birdwell was previously charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated in Vanderburgh County on March 5, 2013.

He was sentenced to 10 years in the Indiana Department of Corrections as the result of a plea bargain. The maximum he could have faced was 12 years.

On Oct. 24, Jesse Lechner, 34, of Chandler, was driving home from work on his scooter. Bridget Lafferty, 18, of Chandler allegedly hit him from behind, killing him.

According to a probable cause affidavit, a “terrible song” came on the radio and she looked down to change the station. She was charged with causing death when operating a motor vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substance in the blood, causing death when operating a vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more and reckless homicide, all level 5 felonies.

Just a couple weeks later, the Rinehart family was on the way home from the Bands of America national competition in Indianapolis. The Castle Marching Knights, led by soloist Sophie Rinehart, had just moved the audience to tears, clenching a top 10 title in the process.

David Rinehart, Sophie’s father, had struck a deer on I-69. When police officers arrived on scene, they found the remains of a horrific accident. There was a huge amount of debris in the roadway, a passenger car and an inverted pickup truck near an embankment. According to a police report, Mason Hartke, 19, of Jasper, left the roadway for unknown reasons and struck the Rinehart’s car. Sophie, along with her father, David, and her grandmother, Ruth, were all lost in the accident.

Hartke was charged with three counts of causing death when operating a motor vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more and three counts of reckless homicide, all level 5 felonies. He had previously been charged in Hamilton County for illegal possession of an alcoholic beverage.

On Dec. 17, Whitney Winstead was driving eastbound on S.R. 62 when her vehicle was struck by an SUV driven by Osiel Marroquin, 18, of Evansville. Marroquin was driving the wrong way on the divided highway. The crash left 15-year-old Skylar Robinson-Williamson, a freshman at Boonville High School, dead and Megan Ripperdan, 18, fighting for her life. Winstead was injured, as well, but escaped serious physical injury.

Marroquin had an ACE of more than three times the legal limit. He was charged with reckless homicide, causing death when operating a motro vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more and causing death when operating a vehicle while intoxicated, all level 5 felonies; causing serious bodily injury when operating a motor vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more, a level 6 felony; and operating a vehicle while intoxicated, endangering a person, a class A misdemeanor. An additional charge of causing death with a prior conviction may be added to his list of charges.

Warrick County Prosecutor Mike Perry said he and his employees feel the pain of the community.

“We, as an office, and as a representative of our community, are extremely weary of the tragic effects of this most avoidable of all criminal offenses — and have shed too many tears with our fellow citizens in light of recent tragedies,” he said in a Facebook post. “However, unless and until our legislators address the issue that a level 4 or level 5 felony are the highest levels to which one could be held accountable for taking the life of someone else through their senseless, selfish actions, prosecutors are limited as to how best to proceed for punishment of offenders and protection of the innocent. Most importantly, however, without harsher potential punishment for those who take another’s life through this selfish decision to get behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated, we will unfortunately be faced with future tragedies and additional mourning for all of those affected by these tragedies.”

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