Drunken driver gets probation in deaths


February 24, 2007

A drunken driver who killed his best friend and the friend's 8-year-old son avoided prison time after the widow testified that locking him up would only cause more pain.

Debbie Coffelt, of Round Hill, Va., said yesterday that she and her 13-year-old daughter remain close to neighbor James W. Loveless Jr. and his wife and three children despite Loveless's role in the deaths of 44-year-old Chris Coffelt and son Matthew.

"They're good people," Debbie Coffelt said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "Bad things do happen to good people, but that doesn't make them bad people. It just means they are involved in a tragedy."

Loveless, 41, pleaded guilty Thursday in Frederick County Circuit Court to two counts of vehicular homicide while impaired by alcohol. He acknowledged drinking four or five beers during a fathers-and-sons trip to a Baltimore Orioles baseball game before flipping Chris Coffelt's Ford F-250 pickup truck by crashing into a guard rail along Interstate 70 on the stormy night of July 7, 2005. Loveless and his 8-year-old son survived.

In court, Debbie Coffelt described the families' tight bonds. The husbands, who both worked in construction trades, met when their sons were enrolled in a Northern Virginia child care center. Over the years, the families vacationed together and became next-door neighbors.

"We looked after each other," Coffelt, 44, told Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. "We were one unit -- like an extended family. We became interchangeable as parents to the children."

Loveless's wife, Anne, showed the judge pictures of the two boys on a couch and of all five children at birthday parties.

"The loss is not just my husband and son," Coffelt, an electrical utility manager, said in court. "It's broken all of us."

Assistant State's Attorney Kirsten N. Brown, who joined with the defense in requesting leniency, said Coffelt's speech was unlike any she's heard as a prosecutor.

"She just was very adamant that if he had to go to prison, then her life would be turned upside down all over again," Brown said.

Before sentencing Loveless, Dwyer asked him twice, "Why shouldn't I put you in jail?"

"It's up to you," Loveless replied.

Dwyer suspended a six-year prison term and sentenced Loveless to five years of supervised probation including a year of home confinement. During that time, Loveless must abstain from drinking, attend Alcoholics Anonymous and have an alcohol-detecting interlock device placed on his vehicle. He also must speak about his crime four times a year at new drivers' ceremonies in Virginia.

Associated Press

Wicomico County

Guilty plea in church scam

A woman who falsely claimed that her 3-year-old twins drowned during Hurricane Katrina and cheated a church out of $5,600 has pleaded guilty to theft by deception.

Sandra Suiter of Hebron was sentenced to a year and a half in prison after entering her plea Thursday. She has already served five months.

Suiter received $5,600 in charitable donations from St. Paul's Methodist Church in Hebron.

In a written statement presented in court, she said: "I am sorry for the wrongs I've done. Paying the church restitution is most important to me."

Suiter was arrested in September after state police said she claimed that her 3-year-old twins were killed in Slidell, La., during the storm, and asked charities for money. Police contacted Louisiana authorities, who reported that no children younger than 5 died in Slidell as a result of the storm.

Associated Press

Washington Co.

City man convicted in shooting

A Baltimore man was convicted of shooting at another driver who wouldn't move out of the passing lane.

A Washington County jury convicted Jimmie Lee Johnson, 36, of attempted second-degree murder, first-degree assault, reckless endangerment, marijuana possession and weapons violations stemming from an incident June 19 on Interstate 70.

Police said three bullets from Johnson's 9 mm handgun hit a PT Cruiser driven by Kyle Hitchcock, then 19, of Derwood. Neither Hitchcock nor his passenger, Terri Easterlin, of Orange, Va., were hurt.

Johnson, who is black, testified he acted in self-defense after Hitchcock made an obscene gesture and yelled a racial slur at him.

Assistant State's Attorney Robert Veil said the claim of self-defense was "absolutely unbelievable." Johnson is being held without bond pending sentencing, which wasn't scheduled.

Associated Press

Prince George's

Game led to tragic death

Police believe the death of a high school football star and aspiring volunteer firefighter resulted when the teen turned a gun on himself in a game of Russian roulette.

Prince George's County police responded to a report of gunshots Feb. 16 at the Suitland home where 17-year-old Timothy Van Buren lived with his family. They found the teen suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. Two of his friends were also in the house.

"It looks like he asked both the people inside there to play Russian roulette, and they denied his request," said police spokeswoman Cpl. Debbie Carlson. "At that point, he pointed the weapon at his own head and pulled the trigger."

Associated Press

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