An Arizona man was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of public service Friday in La Plata County Court after pleading guilty to careless driving causing death and careless driving causing injury.
Lee Desmond, 55, was driving west on U.S. Highway 160, west of Durango, the morning of May 21 when he fell asleep and drifted into the eastbound lane and crashed head-on with a truck and trailer carrying the Rohwer family. Judy Rohwer was killed on impact and five others were seriously injured.
Desmond and his brother, who had been working in the Wyoming oil fields, were traveling from Casper, Wyoming, to go home to their families in Page, Arizona, when the crash occurred. The pair had been trading off with driving duties when the crash happened at 6:08 a.m. near the top of Hesperus hill. Neither drugs nor alcohol is a factor, but Desmond did not have a driver’s license.
Angela Rohwer, chief of the Pleasant View Fire Department, and her sister Heidi Rohwer, EMS captain of the fire department, were seriously injured in the crash, which took the life of their mother and injured nephew Zachery Berg. The women appeared in court Friday and read a prepared statement on behalf of the surviving members who were in the truck before sentencing. Heidi was still on crutches as a result of the injuries she suffered in the crash.
“The sights, sounds, smells and the feeling of horror and helplessness are memories we can never get out of our heads,” Angela said as her voice broke with emotion. “The injuries that were sustained in the moment of impact were life-changing injuries, and we came very close to losing our business and farm.”
The Rohwer family had been active members of the Durango Farmers Market and were on their way there at the time of the crash.
“For the last eight months, our family has dealt with the grief and impact of this loss,” Angela said. “We have struggled with the forgiveness part. Mom always taught us that true healing comes from forgiving and that if Christ could forgive us then we should forgive those who have done us wrong.”
She said their mother also taught them to take responsibility for their decisions and face the consequences of their actions.
“Lee Desmond made the choice to break the law and drive without a license and to continue to drive while feeling tired instead of pulling over and changing out drivers or taking a nap. The consequences of this decision has changed our lives forever.”
The loss of their mother and the emotional and physical trauma has scarred them for life, Angela said, adding they have hope through faith in Jesus and his teachings.
She said no sentencing would bring their mother back and that the family is OK with the plea agreement Lee had been offered.
Desmond sat quietly at the defendant’s table while Angela spoke, before standing to address the women and the court.
He expressed remorse and said the crash still plays in his thoughts and causes him to fall silent.
“I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive, and I will just have to live with it the rest of my life,” Desmond said. “I’m deeply sorry and offer my condolences.”
Desmond then reflected on the impact to the victim’s and his own family, and the pain caused by taking an innocent life.
Senior Judge Jeffrey Romeo told Desmond that careless driving not resulting in someone’s death is just a matter of luck and that driving tired is akin to driving intoxicated. He said he was basing his sentencing decision on the victims and the district attorney’s office being “OK” with the plea deal that had been reached.
“I have to trust in that,” Romeo said. “If you are a good person this will hit you, and it should.”
Romeo went on to encourage Desmond to be “proactive” beyond his community service by sharing his story with others and warning them of the dangers of driving while tired.
He then sentenced Desmond to the two years of probation and 100 hours of community service along with the requirement that Lee get a driver’s license. He was also fined $1,000 plus court costs and may have to pay restitution.
After court was adjourned, the wife of Desmond’s brother, who was also seriously injured in the crash, spoke to The Durango Herald about the impact on their families as well as the victims’. She said her husband, who had been the breadwinner in the family, lost his job and now has to rely on a colostomy bag.
“I am thankful the other family had in their heart to forgive (Desmond),” she said. “And they will always be in our prayers.”