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Published: Saturday, 6/28/2008

Wrong-way driver gets 43 years in fatal Toledo crash

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Danny Griffin said he believed his life was at its greatest.

He had a home full of children, a smiling wife, and a newborn daughter all things he cherished.

But yesterday in a Lucas County Common Pleas courtroom, he said all those things have become only memories.

Six months after five members of his family were killed in a wrong-way crash involving a pickup truck and a van on I-280, Mr. Griffin shared the pain of his loss with a packed courtroom, a judge, and the man who caused it.

Michael Gagnon, 24, the driver of the pickup, was sentenced to 43 years in prison for causing the crash that killed a mother and four children, and severely injured two others in the van.

With a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit and marijuana in his system at almost three times the level of impairment, the Adrian man drove the wrong way on I-280 for almost five miles before colliding almost head-on into Mr. Griffin s oncoming van near the Manhattan Boulevard overpass. The crash occurred just before 11 p.m. Dec. 30.

Now all I have are the memories of what was, yet will never be again, said Mr. Griffin, who wears his and his wife s wedding rings on a gold chain around his neck.

Pictures that cover the walls [serve] as a reminder of that loving household that we all once shared. They are beautiful to look at, for sure, but their smiles have no voices, and their bodies, you cannot feel.

Not eligible for parole

Gagnon was sentenced to seven years in prison on each of five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and to four years in prison on each of two counts of aggravated vehicular assault.

Judge Linda Jennings ordered the sentences to be served consecutively. Gagnon is not eligible for parole.

Five members of the Griffin family were killed in the Dec. 30 crash. The family was traveling home after a
holiday visit to family in Michigan. Five members of the Griffin family were killed in the Dec. 30 crash. The family was traveling home after a holiday visit to family in Michigan.
Enlarge

He pleaded no contest to and was found guilty of each of the charges May 9. He faced a maximum of 50 years in prison.

In an emotional statement to the judge, Gagnon said he prayed for forgiveness from the families of the victims.

Killed in the crash were Bethany Griffin, 36; Jordan Griffin and Haley Burkman, both 10; Lacie Burkman, 7, and Vadie Griffin, 8 weeks.

Sydney Griffin, 8, and Mr. Griffin, 36, were hospitalized for a time because of their injuries.

A sixth child in the van, Beau Burkman, 8, suffered only minor injuries, including bruising from the seat belt. His injuries did not result in any charges against Gagnon.

We are gathered here today, and some would think that my only concern is the term of my sentence, Gagnon said, reading from a written statement.

I will be serving a life sentence of guilt for the pain I ve caused.

I will never be able to undo the damage that I ve done, and I m sorry, he added, his voice faltering as he fought off tears.

The emotion was the only break in Gagnon s otherwise stolid face.

Description of crash

Police said Gagnon drove his northbound pickup the wrong way on the expressway from Oregon before colliding with Mr. Griffin s van.

The family was on its way home to Parkville, Md. after spending several days in Michigan celebrating the holidays with relatives.

"Pictures that cover the walls [serve] as a reminder of that loving household that we all once shared. They are
beautiful to look at   but their smiles have no voices and their bodies you cannot feel." 
<BR>
- Danny Griffin, whose five family members were killed in the wrong-way crash on I-280 "Pictures that cover the walls [serve] as a reminder of that loving household that we all once shared. They are beautiful to look at but their smiles have no voices and their bodies you cannot feel." <BR> - Danny Griffin, whose five family members were killed in the wrong-way crash on I-280
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Mr. Griffin, who now lives in Canton, Mich., yesterday for the first time publicly described how he was rounding the concrete barriers on the exit from I-75 to I-280 when he saw two oncoming headlights.

I jerked to the left, and that was it, he said. I saw an opening in the van, and I saw my wife on the road.

The combined speeds of both vehicles meant they crashed at a rate between 120 mph and 130 mph, authorities said.

The family s minivan was split nearly in half, authorities said.

Sentence appropriate

Doug Scoles, state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Ohio, said about 13,000 people die each year nationwide in drunken driving crashes.

He said the organization believes the sentence given to Gagnon was fair and appropriate.

This is a horrific tragedy that could have completely been avoided, he said. This should never, ever happen to another family again.

 [S]ome would think that my only concern is the term of my sentence. I will be serving a life sentence of guilt for the pain I ve caused. I will never be able to undo the
damage that I ve done and I m sorry.  
<BR>
- Michael Gagnon, reading from a statement during sentencing for the crash that killed a mother and four children [S]ome would think that my only concern is the term of my sentence. I will be serving a life sentence of guilt for the pain I ve caused. I will never be able to undo the damage that I ve done and I m sorry. <BR> - Michael Gagnon, reading from a statement during sentencing for the crash that killed a mother and four children
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Many of Gagnon s family members sobbed uncontrollably in the courtroom upon learning his sentence.

Defense attorney Rick Sanders said the family is private and did not wish to speak to the media.

He said the family believes the focus should be put on the victims family.

During his statements to Judge Jennings, Mr. Sanders outlined what happened the night of the fatal crash, which involved a holiday gathering of Gagnon s extended family at the Rodeo Bar & Grill on Navarre Avenue in Oregon.

Michael Yousif and Jon Roumaya, owners of the Rodeo Bar and Grill, which has since closed, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Gagnon had been drinking over several hours and, despite having hotel rooms reserved nearby, decided to go to his truck to sleep it off, Mr. Sanders said.

That s the last Gagnon remembers, Mr. Sanders said.

Since the crash, Danny Griffin has told his story to high
school students in an effort to prevent drunken driving. Since the crash, Danny Griffin has told his story to high school students in an effort to prevent drunken driving.
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He believes he was going out to the truck to sleep it off. He wishes he would have gone to the hotel, Mr. Sanders said.

Fast-food stop

Authorities said between 10:40 and 10:45 p.m., Gagnon pulled into the drive-through of a Taco Bell. His confusion, slurred speech, and an odor of alcohol indicated to employees that he was intoxicated.

The employees called Oregon police, who arrived just minutes after Gagnon grabbed his food and drove off.

More phone calls came in from motorists on I-280, each reporting a pickup headed in the wrong direction. At 10:55 p.m., Toledo police were notified of the collision.

Mr. Sanders said unlike most facing prison for criminal acts, Gagnon made a choice to drink but not to cause the tragic crash.

He made the choice to go and start drinking, he said. But certainly, I don t think that anyone would believe he made the choice to go out and kill anybody.

Mr. Sanders said after the sentencing he was surprised by the length of time in prison. Gagnon likely will appeal the sentence, he added.

County Assistant Prosecutor Jeffrey Lingo said, Intent or not, the result is just as devastating for this family.

Defense attorney Rick Sanders, standing, says that Michael Gagnon, seated, chose to drink but did not intentionally kill anyone.
Defense attorney Rick Sanders, standing, says that Michael Gagnon, seated, chose to drink but did not intentionally kill anyone.
Enlarge

He said that the sentence fell within the guidelines set by law.

Judge Jennings called Gagnon the most dangerous person, saying he has a drinking problem and doesn t know it.

When you drink and drive, it only takes a second to wipe a family off the face of this Earth and you have done that, she said.

Spreading the word

Mr. Griffin said he has been speaking to high school students in the six months since the crash to help them understand the devastating impact of drinking and driving.

He said he relies on photos of his family to remind him of their smiles, but those pictures don t speak, play, or comfort him.

The holes that are left in our hearts will never heal, he said. They all will always be on our minds and missed daily. We will only be able to remember the past, grasp the memories, and hold them close to our hearts.

Contact Erica Blake at:eblake@theblade.comor 419-213-2134.



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