Spared Prison, Ordered to Rebuild: Her Drunken Driving Killed Two Friends, but Judge’s Hope Influences the Penalty

By Ellen Tomson, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Mar. 3–On the judge’s left on Friday sat the mothers, grieving for sons who will never again tear through snacks, build ramps for bikes and ‘boards, lose and lend clothes to friends, grin while holding fish, fall from tree limbs or yell the words mothers wait up for late at night: “Mom, I’m home.”

And on the judge’s right: a teenage girl who got drunk on vodka while driving their sons and another girl in circuits around a lake in White Bear Township. She slammed her purple Ford Escort into a cottonwood tree and survived to tattoo the names of the mothers’ two dead sons and the date they died on her right ankle, which was broken — her only injury — in the crash. She’s a girl with a tumultuous family history who began drinking alcohol at 12 and, by the time she reached high school, sometimes added marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine into the mix.

On both sides of the Ramsey County courtroom, the mothers and fathers, siblings, grandparents and friends sobbed, hugged and held papers they would read from with shaking hands.

Judge Robert Awsumb noted the “very difficult situation” and then, in an effort to create the potential for a “productive life” from the tragic circumstances, he sentenced Heather Ann Tucci, 18, to two years in the county jail and 23 years of probation, instead of sending her to a state prison.

Awsumb told Tucci her age weighed heavily in his decision and said he was “in favor of being able to supervise, of having my grip on you.”

The judge said he wanted to see her “regain at some point a productive life — which Joseph Shafer and Joseph Renner will not be able to enjoy.”

Janice Barker, a Ramsey County assistant attorney, urged Awsumb to send Tucci to prison for up to the 48 months the state allows on each count. After the crash, referring to the two boys who died after getting into her car, Tucci wrote on her page, “Both of them knew what they were getting in to.”

Barker said Tucci has consistently made statements beginning, “I’m responsible, but …”

But Awsumb told Tucci, “I do believe you feel remorse for your friends.”

He ordered Tucci to pay $5,404 to the family of Shafer, 18, of White Bear Township, and $316 to the family of Renner, 19, of White Bear Lake. Renner died at the crash site, and Shafer died at the hospital.

Tucci also will pay a still-undetermined amount in restitution to Samantha Ziebell, 18, of Vadnais Heights, who survived with injuries and underwent several surgeries, and she was ordered to pay $950 to the Minnesota crime victims restitution board, as well as $250 in fines and court costs.

The judge told Tucci she will not be allowed to participate in any release programs during her first year in the workhouse. But during her second year there, she will be eligible for work-release, education, chemical dependency treatment, counseling and other programs. During her years of probation, she must abstain from drug and alcohol use, submit to random drug and alcohol testing, undergo psychological and mental health evaluations, finish her high school education or obtain a GED, and maintain full-time employment.

The judge required Tucci to write a letter to him every year on Aug. 19, the anniversary of the accident, outlining activities she undertakes to “give back” to her community and efforts she makes to maintain sobriety and her plans for community service and sobriety for the coming year. He ordered that copies of her letters be sent to the victims’ families.

The court session opened with impact statements from Shafer’s and Renner’s extended families and friends. The judge and others in the courtroom viewed a video set to music that included images of Shannon Shafer talking about her son and photographs that illustrated his life and personality. The images showed he was active — biking and boarding on water, land and snow. Many pictures showed him with his family, all smiling, and a few were taken after he died. In one, family and friends, wearing blue Superman T-shirts, carried his casket.

“We were given a son we lived our lives for,” his mother said.

Renner’s mother sobbed as she showed an album of family photographs to the judge and spoke of the pain she has suffered since the night her son died.

“How could I be asleep when my son is dying? How could I?” she said she asked herself before telling her husband, “I can’t do this. I cannot do this. I cannot do my son’s death.”

Ellen Tomson can be reached at [email protected] or 651-228-5455.


Copyright (c) 2007, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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