ELLSWORTH — A former UW-River Falls student who crashed into two pedestrians will spend three months on house arrest and another year on probation after pleading no contest this week to two crimes in Pierce County Circuit Court.
The sentence was issued at the same Tuesday, Dec. 12 hearing, where Jacob Zwiefelhofer pleaded no contest to two reckless driving charges, one a felony, the other a misdemeanor.
Judge Joe Boles' sentence calls for the felony conviction to be dismissed after three years if Zwiefelhofer abides the terms of a deferred judgment agreement.
The agreement requires him to complete 200 hours of community service, write apology letters to his victims and participate in restorative justice programming at the victims' desire. If completed successfully, the 24-year-old Bloomer man would be left with a misdemeanor conviction stemming from the May 7, 2015, incident on the UWRF campus.
But, Zwiefelhofer told the court at the Dec. 12 sentencing hearing, he expects to carry the burden of responsibility with him "to the day I die."
"I just want to do right by everyone involved," he said. "I am sorry."
Zwiefelhofer's community service will be spent speaking to groups about the dangers of distracted driving.
Authorities said Zwiefelhofer was behind the wheel of a work truck on East Cascade Avenue when he looked down at his phone as he approached Fourth Street. When he looked up, he was in the crosswalk, where the truck struck UWRF employees Elizabeth Dekker and Jennifer Drews.
Drews described at the hearing how the crash left her hospitalized for a month and with effects that linger to this day. She said she remembered pressing the crosswalk button. Her next memory was from two weeks later in the hospital.
Drews learned that she'd been clinging to life after the crash.
"I almost didn't live to see my first wedding anniversary," she told the court, adding that the brain injury she sustained required her to relearn how to walk, talk and eat. "I am fortunate to be alive."
Pierce County Victim-Witness Coordinator Erin Mulhollam read a letter from Dekker, who wrote that her life since the crash has been "one of difficulty and suffering." Dekker expected the seven months of physical therapy she's undergone to continue the rest of her life.
"It has fundamentally changed me as a person," she said of the crash's effects.
Boles acknowledged the pain the women have experienced and said that while Zwiefelhofer didn't intentionally cause the crash, he still bore responsibility.
The house arrest, which allows for work release, represents necessary punishment to deter others from similar driving, Boles said. But he said the possibility of progress for all involved in the case is most potent through restorative justice, a program that places victims and offenders in a setting that allows for moderated dialogue.
"Maybe there's some healing that happens there — and that's the hope," Boles said, noting that the program only will be mandated if one or both of the victims wants to be involved.
Both victims, along with Boles, noted the duration of the case, which has stretched out two-and a-half years. The judge said his experience in the legal world suggested the delay involved Zwiefelhofer's insurance company, which Boles said likely urged him to plead no contest — rather than outright guilt — in order to continue his coverage.
"Clearly, there are reasons for the way things play out and the reason things take time," Boles said.