|Bill DeWitt Jr. (left), Shelen Stevens and Greg Stevens after verdict and sentencing Wednesday afternoon. (J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
“He’s never coming home,” a young female voice cried out as the family and friends of Cory Mendoza left the courtroom Wednesday after Mendoza was sentenced to 39 years in prison for his role in the 2008 crash which killed Sharon and William DeWitt.
Her anguish, however, is only minor compared to the pain, suffering and loss suffered by the DeWitt family as evidenced by their victim impact statements to the court. Their statements followed a jury returning guilty verdicts on all 12 counts against Mendoza. The panel of seven women and five men deliberated for four hours.
The Weston couple died while riding with their daughter, Shelen Stevens and her son, Shayne. The car Mendoza was driving while under the influence and at a high rate of speed struck Stevens’ van and forced it into a tree.
Stevens, her husband, Greg, and her brother, Bill DeWitt Jr., all provided comments for Wood County Common Pleas Court Judge Alan Mayberry prior to the sentencing. There were few dry eyes in the courtroom.
In a dramatic gesture, DeWitt Jr. brought in two white cardboard boxes which contained the cremated remains of his parents.
“This is my mom and this my dad,” he announced as he placed each the boxes in front of him. “Mom and dad were everything.”
While there was much more he wished to say, he was visibly shaking and admitted to “not making any sense right now.”
Referencing the time being called “victim impact” statements, he said “Impact, we have impact every day.”
Both were age 69 at their death, and served as caretakers for various family members.
Stevens related a family comment that a car is a loaded weapon. After relating others who provided the weapon and bullets, she said, it was “Cory Mendoza alone who chose to pull the trigger.”
She reminded the judge of her respect for him and the court, noting how she would rise at appropriate times at preliminary court hearings. She asked him to return that respect and hand down the maximum sentence for Mendoza.
Stevens struggled but related again for the judge, personal things which were taken from her beyond the lives of her parents due to “conscious decisions made by Cory Mendoza.”
She related how she was facing surgery, and recovering from her injuries while Mendoza was on the loose, or kicking out the police cruiser windows. Both she and her husband shared how their son has regressed since the accident and death of his grandparents.
At one point during her statement, the defendant grabbed the box of tissues in front of him and wiped away tears.
Greg Stevens shared some of the struggles he and his family have faced and will continue to face. He outlined in detail some of the challenges and regression of their son, calling him “clearly a young man in emotional distress.”
Mendoza, at his opportunity to address the court, instead, turned his back on the judge and addressed primarily the DeWitt family as well as his family. He could no longer contain his tears as he tried to make some concessions to his guilt.
Mendoza, now 21, was sentenced to a mandatory 10 years, each, for aggravated vehicular homicide charges regarding the death of the DeWitts. He was also ordered to serve eight years in prison for aggravated vehicular assault in regards to Stevens; four years for aggravated vehicular assault for the injuries to Alivia Baron, a passenger in Mendoza’s car; four years for failure to obey the signal of an officer; and three years for leaving the scene of an accident. Each of those sentences to account for the 39-year total.
He was also sentenced to five years for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and six months for child endangerment. Both of those are misdemeanor charges, which by law are ordered to be served concurrently with the felony charges.
Mayberry also ordered his driver’s license suspended for life. Per the request of Stevens, Mayberry also ordered a recommendation for the warden to place Mendoza in solitary confinement on Oct. 5 each year, the anniversary of the accident as a reminder.
Mayberry noted the difference between the assault charges regarding Shelen Stevens and Baron, and said the lesser sentence on the Baron count was due to the fact she assumed some of her own risk by voluntarily riding with Mendoza.
In issuing the sentence, Mayberry said the crimes met the burden of being “the worst form of the offenses” in regards to those in Stevens’ van.
In justifying that decision, the judge sited several factors including Mendoza’s being only 19 and too young to drink anything with alcohol at the time of the accident; his suspended license for a prior alcohol driving conviction; having his infant son in the vehicle unrestrained; and speeding on Sand Ridge Road, as he put “many people at risk for life and limb.”
The judge noted it was a conscious decision for him to flee from the officer and flee from the scene.
He questioned how he could care so much about his family if he left his baby lying in the road.
Mendoza wept freely during his comments. He apologized and noted his “wrong choices.” He also stated he had found faith in Jesus Christ since the accident and stated he prayed for the DeWitt family every day. “I’ve come a long way.” He told the victims and their family he doesn’t know them but he does love them.
“I’m sorry I let you down Mom,” he said as he addressed her and other members of his family. “I’m sorry everybody had to go through this all because of choices I made.”
The judge did not find his apologies believable.
“Your remorse is for yourself; not for the DeWitts or not for anyone else but only for yourself, the judge stated.
He told Mendoza when he is placed into solitary confinement he should think about “the families, including your own, you destroyed on that day.”
Following the sentencing, Gwen Howe-Gebers, who prosecuted the case said, “The family said it all.”
|Cory Mendoza addresses the court Wednesday after a jury found him guilty on all counts. (J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)