Families of teens killed in crash speak at sentencing of drunken driver from Paynesville
LITCHFIELD -- Images flashed across a Meeker County courtroom television screen Monday, showing two smiling teenagers wearing camouflage and baseball caps, posing with friends and showing off freshly caught fish.
A packed courthouse of family and friends cried as mothers of the two teens spoke of lives cut short.
“When my son Travis was killed, a part of me died with him,” Julia Monson said. “His charm was everlasting. He lived life to the fullest, every day.”
Sixteen-year-old Zachary Rohrbeck and 19-year-old Travis Monson, both of Watkins, were killed in a crash with a drunken driver who crossed the centerline on state Highway 24 last August. A third teen, 16-year-old Kathleen Prestidge, of Montrose, was injured.
But their mothers said the slideshows were really for the man sitting in the defendant’s chair: Benjamin Lee Tate, 28, of Paynesville.
Tate was sentenced Monday to 58 months in prison for felony criminal vehicular homicide and gross misdemeanor criminal vehicular operation.
Minnesota State Patrol troopers on the scene of the Aug. 25 crash said Tate had bloodshot, watery eyes and smelled strongly of alcohol, according to a criminal complaint on the charges.
A preliminary breath test showed Tate had a blood alcohol level above 0.08 percent, the legal driving limit in Minnesota.
“I just want to sincerely apologize for the outcomes of my actions and choices,” Tate said at the Monday hearing, as he turned around to face the full courtroom gallery. “I’m gonna use this as a pedestal and try to help out somebody else.”
Tate pleaded guilty to the charges June 22. As part of the plea agreement, a gross misdemeanor driving while impaired charge was dismissed at sentencing.
Fifty-eight months behind bars is in line with sentencing guidelines for the crime and Tate’s minor criminal history. He will receive credit for 349 days already served.
Originally, Meeker County Attorney Brandi Schiefelbein intended to seek more severe sentencing in the case. But the families of the victims settled for a plea agreement, Schiefelbein said Monday, fearing Tate could receive even lighter sentencing in a jury trial.
Six family members gave victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing.
Prestidge also gave her own statement. She said she has since suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
And she often has flashbacks of that night, when she woke up in the passenger seat to realize she had been in a crash.
“I climbed through the windshield. Travis was laying there lifeless,” Prestidge said. “I screamed at the top of my lungs. I grabbed his face and said, ‘Travis, you need to wake up.’”
She said she remembers a man running toward her on the side of the road, later identified as Tate. She said Tate told her he did not have a phone and could not help with CPR for Travis or Zachary.
He was later criticized for that, both in court documents arguing for more severe sentencing and in statements Monday from family members, who called him disinterested and said he lacked compassion at the scene.
As Tate listened to the statements in court Monday, he appeared emotional. He cried often and closed his eyes.
Michael Rohrbeck, Zachary’s father, asked Schiefelbein to read his impact statement for him. As she read, he cried in the court gallery.
“I’ve cried every day since he’s passed away,” his statement read. “You took part of my life away from me, and that I will never forgive.”
Zachary’s mother, Nora Rohrbeck, sister Kelsey Osterberg, and uncle Paul Osterberg said the stress of the loss impacted all of them.
They said Zachary’s grandpa Roger Osterberg, normally healthy, died of a stroke just a month after Zachary died.
They are convinced Roger’s stroke was brought on from the stress of his grandchild’s death.
Not all of the family members who spoke said they forgave Tate for the crash. But most said they wanted him to get help for alcoholism. Judge Stephanie Beckman, presiding at the sentencing, agreed.
“I hope your children can have the benefit of a father who wants to be sober,” Beckman said, as Tate nodded.
After Tate was sentenced, and escorted out of the courtroom, those who attended the sentencing exited the room together, some people still sniffling and wiping their eyes. Zachary’s dad Michael pulled Travis’s mother Julia in for a hug.
“Their families (have) come together in a way that is much stronger than the evil that took their boys away,” Schiefelbein said.