|Mon, Sep 22, 2014 04:11 AM
|Issue of September 17, 2014
February 19, 2014 | 10:05 AM
The family of Crystal Milchling, a 31-year-old mother of three who was killed in a crash last year on S.R. 11, closed a difficult chapter last week after Harrison Superior Court Judge Roger D. Davis sentenced Christopher Stull to a maximum 12-year prison sentence last Wednesday night.
Stull was accused of driving while under the influence of methamphetamine when he drove his 2006 GMC truck left of center and head-on into Milchling's 2001 Chevrolet passenger car. Milchling, who was en route to Floyd Memorial Hospital because of a splinter in her daughter's foot, was killed instantly while her 7-year-old daughter, who was riding in the back seat, suffered several broken bones throughout her body as well as a cracked skull.
"This case is tragic. There are no winners. This isn't a win for the State. It isn't a win for the accused, because he received the maximum sentence. Ultimately, the biggest loser in this is the family, who had to bury their daughter and have a crippled granddaughter," Harrison County Prosecutor J. Otto Schalk said. "It's an unbelievable tragedy that is really hard to fathom. A hundred years wouldn't make us satisfied. Even 200 years would not give the family back those moments they cherish with their daughter. How do you pin a number on having to tell your granddaughter that her mother's not going to be there for Christmas? That's a tough pill to swallow."
In January, Stull entered into a blind plea agreement, saying he was guilty of Class B felony causing death when operating a motor vehicle with controlled substance in the body. As part of the plea agreement, a charge of Class D felony causing serious bodily injury when operating a motor vehicle with controlled substance in the body was dismissed. There was a six-year minimum and a 12-year cap on the prison sentence. With good-time credit, Stull is scheduled to serve six years.
At times, tension ran high on both sides during the hearing, which lasted more than three hours.
Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Temple testified that Stull refused to take a drug test during a pre-sentence investigation. Under cross, Stull's attorney, Bart Betteau, told Temple that he advised Stull not to take the drug test, which was the reason for the refusal.
Also testifying for the prosecution were Milchling's parents, Cindy Rowley and Daniel Milchling, who re-married the day prior so they could support their daughter as one family at the hearing.
Rowley said she hoped that Stull would receive some jail time and rehabilitation not only to do better for himself, but to hopefully help others who had drug problems.
"We all make mistakes. That's understandable, but this mistake took someone's life," Rowley said. "I don't want to hate people. I look at the good side. But, my daughter is dead ... I pray God forgives me for hating this man. I have to pray to God to forgive my sin of hating him. Can you believe that?
"What I want to do is wake up from this nightmare, wake up and see (Crystal) smiling at me."
During his testimony, Daniel Milchling showed Davis photos of not only his daughter, but his three grandchildren two of whom he no longer gets to see. Two of the children, including the girl injured in the crash, live with their father in Florida and he has not provided Milchling his address. The other grandchild, who Milchling sees from time to time, lives with his father.
Video was also shown of a birthday being celebrated at Crystal's grave, and the 7-year-old laying on a hospital bed, in pain, crying for her mother, the night of the fatal crash.
"I have to be (Crystal's) voice," Milchling said before reading a written statement to Stull.
"She was a single parent working two jobs to raise her babies. You gave me and my family a life sentence without my daughter," Milchling said.
In a phone interview later, Milchling said he wasn't happy with the outcome due to the length of the jail sentence, but he had to get over the issue.
"It's took a whole year of my life away with the court dates, court dates being moved," he said. "It's been a nightmare. There's no winners. My daughter's gone, and I'll never get to see her again. I'm the one who has lost everything, the grandkids and a daughter. You don't get over it. You just try to put it aside."
The defense called Stull's supervisor at 5-M Transportation, Michael McBride, longtime friend Craig Troutman and Stull's sister, mother and wife to the stand to testify as to Stull's character.
All said Stull is a good-hearted person who would help anyone, but almost all said that they knew of his drug use, if not methamphetamine, then marijuana.
Stull's sister, Cindy, said she knew he used meth prior to being married. She said he started using alcohol and marijuana around the ages of 18 to 20. She said he did well with it at times and other times he didn't.
Stull's mother, Charlene, said she was sorry the victim's family had to go through the ordeal, saying she knew how they felt because she'd lost a 14-year-old brother and a grandmother in automobile crashes. She was the only one who said she confronted Stull about his drug use.
"This was not intentional. I don't think it was meth that caused the crash. I think there may have been fault on both sides. That road is terrible," Charlene said before being stopped by Schalk, who asked her to clarify the insinuation that the crash may have partially been Crystal Milchling's fault.
"How do we not know that? No one saw (the impact)," Charlene said.
Schalk said later that an eyewitness saw Stull weaving on the road and, while they didn't see the actual impact, saw the rear of Stull's truck in the air after the two vehicles collided.
Later, prior to giving the sentence, Davis told Charlene Stull that her statement that the crash may have been Milchling's fault was "extremely offensive."
"You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed of yourself if you are aware of the facts, and, if you are not aware of the fact, it's an ignorant thing to suggest," Davis said. "You should apologize to the victim's family."
Stull's wife, Amber, an LPN for 13 years, said her husband was not a junkie. She said she knew of his marijuana use and didn't consider that to be a drug. She said she told him prior to their marriage that she wouldn't allow any drugs in the house.
She said the first time she learned that her husband used meth was when Betteau told her the results of the toxicology report.
Under cross, she said meth and drugs children take for being ADHD are virtually the same thing, and she said her husband did not have a meth problem nor was he an addict.
She said that her husband was remorseful about what had happened and that they had planned on sending flowers to Milchling's funeral and post on the family's Facebook wall but was advised by Betteau not to do or say anything to the family.
"I thank God (Christopher Stull) is alive. I thank God (Milchling's daughter) is alive, and I wish that Crystal would have been alive," Amber Stull said through tears.
Davis gave Christopher Stull an opportunity to make a statement prior to sentencing, which he declined.
Daniel Milchling said he would have felt "a little better" had Stull apologized. "He didn't even man up. I'm not surprised. Crystal didn't deserve none of this. All she was doing was going to the hospital and taking care of her kid like she always did."
During sentencing, Davis questioned why Stull could not directly apologize.
"That doesn't mean he's not remorseful, but it raises doubt in the court's eyes," Davis said. "I'm certain he's remorseful in some way."
"He held his head down low the whole time and refused to look up," Schalk said. "Sometimes doing the right thing goes a long way. Apologizing would have been the right thing. He didn't do that."
Davis also noted that a person had lost their life because of a person's escalating substance abuse, from alcohol to marijuana to methamphetamine.
"There were actually two victims in this. The crash killed Crystal, which he plead guilty to, and there was the child, who was trapped in the car with her dead mother," Davis said. "I hope you get help and support from your family, some of which may be in denial and enabling you."
"It's over. This is the close of a chapter of a tragic book," Schalk said. "We hope the family can move forward in this. The rebuilding process is just beginning. The tragedy in this surpasses anything the criminal justice can do. Hopefully, this just ends a little bit of the suffering."