ELKO – The message may be old, but it is worth repeating: don’t get in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
Three Carlin families can explain why it is important to heed these instructions after a Chevy pickup overturned on Interstate 80 in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2014, killing Jeremiah Stills, 18, and severely injuring Caleb Collins, also 18.
The driver and owner of the pickup, Asay C. Crofts, 24, survived with minor injuries. He was later arrested and charged with two counts of driving under the influence causing death or substantial bodily harm to another.
After a trial in Elko District Court presided by Judge Al Kacin was declared a mistrial in 2016, the case was retried and Crofts was found guilty by a jury Feb. 15. On Friday, he was sentenced by Kacin to serve five years in prison on each count consecutively, which is an aggregate of 10 years with a minimum of four years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $2,000 in fines for each count.
The maximum penalty of 20 years and a $5,000 fine on each count was not sought by the State or the Collins and Stills families.
According to District Attorney Chad Thompson, the lives of the Stills and Collins families and the Carlin community were changed due to the wrong choices made that night.
“Jeremiah Stills lost his life (and) Caleb Collins lost the life he once knew and he will never be the same again,” Thompson said. “The consequences to the family have been devastating and will continue to be so.”
“In a case like this, it’s tempting to think three guys went out drinking and got what they deserve — no they didn’t,” said Thompson, who admitted into evidence Stills’ toxicology report indicating his blood alcohol level was .055 and he was below the legal limit at the time he died.
“They could be the poster child of graduation parties that are being planned …. what not to do,” Thompson continued.
“Their choice to get in the truck (was) bad and their choices to go out and drink were bad, no doubt, but Mr. Crofts’ choice … to get behind the wheel and drive them down Interstate 80 trumps them all,” said Thompson.
Thompson explained the consequences for each of the men in the truck that night.
“For their choices, Jeremiah Stills — for choosing to get into that truck — he paid with his life. Caleb Collins paid with his life, because they will never be the same. Asay Crofts will pay according to the statute … we’re recommending four to 10 years on each count, because each life matters.”
“It’s not just for this case, it’s to send a message to everyone, that this sort of thing is not OK.”
Thompson argued for his recommendation, explaining that “to give Mr. Crofts a light sentence at this point … says ‘well, everybody that gets in the truck it’s their own choice, you’re accountable for it.’ That’s not fair. They paid with their lives. Give him a light sentence, he’ll be out in a couple of years. That’s not right and that’s why we’re asking four to 10 years on each count.”
Defense attorney Gary Woodbury asked for Crofts to receive the minimum sentence of two to five years for each count to be served concurrently, but didn’t believe that a “deterrent effect” would take place by sentencing Crofts to more time in prison.
“The state thinks that if you socked him good and hard with a sentence, that admonition is going to come into play at graduation parties,” said Woodbury. “Young men are high risk people (and) that’s what they do. Whether they should do it or not, whether they think about it or should think about the harm that will cause their family and grief that comes; it’s all well and good, (but) young men are high risk people.”
“I know that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and ten thousand other organizations think you will have a deterrent effect, but you’re not,” he said later.
“It doesn’t end there (as) I’m sure their parents told them not only don’t get in a car with a drunk driver, but for heaven’s sakes if that drunk driver somehow starts to drive funny, do something to stop him. Tell him to stop and let you out,” said Woodbury, reminding the court that Collins testified the truck was speeding at 85 mph and it was shaking before the crash.
Woodbury further argued that the crash “wasn’t an intentional act … (it was) negligence essentially.”
“This isn’t a guy who did something deliberately, at least 100 percent deliberately,” said Woodbury. “Why does he have to get punished more than the minimum?”
Crofts read a statement to the court and to the Stills and Collins’s families: “This has been a drastic, life-changing event for everybody involved. Mine and the other families lives will never be the same. I’m sorry for that.”
Apologizing for the death of Stills and injuries to Collins, Crofts also apologized for “the pain that he and the families have had to endure and will continue to endure. I have nothing but love for the families ... I hope they can find it one day in their hearts to forgive me.”
Thompson read a letter to the court written by Stills’ father Kevin, which said “holidays will never be the same without Jeremiah,” adding how the two hardest things in his life was to lose his son and then try to help his children get through the loss of their brother.
Thompson said Kevin Stills has “crumbled through the stress of (the loss) with anxiety” and was unable to attend the sentencing due to a medical appointment for his heart.
“He’s not concerned about monetary values, but he does want you to understand the impact this has had on their family,” Thompson said.
Other family members said they felt a loss in their lives without Jeremiah, with his sister Bailey telling the court that she lost “her brother, best friend and role model” and he would never get to meet her newborn son.
His mother, Joey Gardner, is still struggling with the loss.
“I miss my son every day,” Gardner said through her tears. “He was good and kind and he loved life so much.”
Stills’ sister and mother agreed that Crofts did not need to be sentenced to the maximum penalty, with Gardner stating that the family felt the four- to 10-year sentence was appropriate, however, wrong choices did factor in to the death and injury of the young men that night.
“I’ve been angry with my son … for getting in that truck. Ultimately that was his decision. It cost him his life,” said Gardner.
“I hope this is a lesson (for) not only the three in the truck, but to everyone around,” Stills said. “I feel like everybody has a punishment that they’re going to get: my brother is gone, he died, Caleb … is not the same he used to be but he’s dealing with it, and Asay, I’m sure he goes through it every day.”
Before sentencing Crofts, Kacin addressed the impact the crash had on everyone involved, including the community of Carlin, and noted that due to Crofts’ age, “it makes for a difficult sentencing.”
Kacin also stated that “DUI is not mere negligence. This is a criminal act and it’s criminalized in our statutes just like it’s criminalized in every other state in the country,” referring to Woodbury’s argument earlier in the sentencing hearing.
“Anybody who is drinking … smoking marijuana … using prescription pills to excess, texting and driving … if you’re going to do that, you’re ultimately responsible for the injuries that result,” Kacin continued.
Kacin also said he has hope that the story of the three young men and Crofts sentencing will be used to make teens think twice about graduation activities.
“I do hope … Jeremiah’s death, Caleb’s suffering, and (the) families’ suffering is not in vain. I hope that’s out there in Carlin, I hope those kids are listening to it, I hope there (are) some general deterrents and I think there can be, by the way. I’m not the skeptic that Mr. Woodbury is.”
“They could be the poster child of graduation parties that are being planned …. what not to do.” — Chad Thompson, Deputy district attorney