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Posted at 01:37 PM ET, 01/05/2012

Driver who fled fatal Olney crash gets 20-year sentence

A Montgomery County man who crashed his car and fled from the wreck, leaving three of his friends dead or dying, on Thursday was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

At the end of a three-hour, emotional hearing, Kevin Coffay, 20, said he was “deeply sorry” for the May 15, 2011, crash that claimed the lives of Spencer Datt, 18; John Hoover, 20; and Haeley McGuire, 18. Authorities said the group attended two parties that evening.

Coffay, speaking in a packed Montgomery County courtroom, said that he did not know there were people in the car when he ran off. If he had, he said, he would have stayed.

“I never intended to leave my friends,” Coffay said. He said on the night of the crash he felt “overwhelming fear and terror.”

Judge Theresa M. Adams imposed a 40-year sentence and suspended all but 20 years. She also ordered Coffay to serve five years probation after he is released.

“The sentence will never bring back Johnny, Haeley or Spencer,” Hoover’s mother, Carolyn Hoover, said afterward. “But the judge did what the prosecutors asked her to, and that’s the best we could hope.”

The hearing drew together members of the close-knit Magruder High School community. Coffay, the three people killed and a survivor who said he watched as Coffay ran off into woods after the crash without saying a word, all had attended the school.

Inside the courtroom, the deep divide that now pits neighbor against neighbor was evident both in statements from family members and comments whispered as relatives of both Coffay and the three victims described the heartache the May collision has brought.

A group of girls who attended wore yellow hoodies and buttons with photos of Hoover and McGuire. A young man wore a yellow shirt with the slogan: “Don’t drink and drive,” and the names of the three dead.


Flowers, candles and crash debris mark the spot of the fatal accident on the 4700 block of Olney-Laytonsville Rd. in Olney, MD. (Ricky Carioti - WASHINGTON POST)
Coffay, who may have been spared by an airbag, made a “cowardly choice,” that reflected a “callous attitude,” prosecutors wrote in a memo seeking the sentence. “It is horrible to simply abandon your friends as they are dying for no other reason than to try to avoid the consequences for your actions,” they wrote.

An off-duty police officer spotted the wreckage shortly after 3 a.m. and saw the survivor walking toward him.

The group of young people had attended two parties in the hours before the crash, and witnesses reported that Coffay had been drinking alcohol, prosecutors said. When police found Coffay at about 6 a.m.and took him to a hospital — three hours after the crash — his blood -alcohol level was 0.16, twice the legal limit in Maryland, according to court records

In a prior hearing in the case, Coffay’s attorney, Michael J. McAuliffe, said Coffay acted as any “panicky young man” would. Coffay was a caring son to his mother when she battled cancer, McAuliffe said, and to his father who, at 58, is in an assisted living facility due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease. His family is “devastated” by the crash and deaths, McAuliffe has said.

Coffay’s mother, Ellen Coffay, on Thursday told the court she takes fault for a “lack of parenting” as she and her husband battled illness. She apologized, saying “there’s nothing I can do to take away the raw pain” of the victims’ families.

“I’m sad our community has become so divided and so full of anger,” Ellen Coffay said. She concluded by asking the judge to consider the whole of her son’s life: “I respectfully ask that you consider his entire life and not just his worst moment.”

In a sentencing memo, Coffay’s attorneys asked for an 18-month term. “There is no further need to teach Kevin a lesson about the consequences of his actions — he is already dealing with all of the harsh lessons life can impose about guilt, shame, remorse and responsibility,” the attorneys wrote.

But some family members of the victims urged the judge to impose a tough punishment. “His decision to leave friends behind should be the last decision he makes for himself for awhile,” Alexa Datt, Spencer Datt’s older sister, said in court.

Coffay, a James Madison University student, has been out on bond since pleading guilty in November to three counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of failing to remain at the scene of the crash on Olney-Laytonsville Road.

Coffay’s charges carried a maximum penalty of 40 years, with the state asking to have all but 20 suspended followed by five years probation once Coffay completes a prison term. Coffay “likely” would be paroled after five years, prosecutor Bryan Roslund noted in his memo, because he committed what is deemed a non-violent crime.

After the crash, police with tracking dogs twice spotted Coffay in woods but he ignored their calls to stop, in what prosecutors said was “not a momentary panic.” He eventually made it to the house of a friend who drove Coffay home where police were waiting.

Told that his friends had died, according to court files, Coffay said, ”What? They were fine when I left.”

The group had driven with Coffay between two late-night parties hosted by acquaintances whose parents were not at home, authorities have said.

By the time Coffay sped away from the second party with his passengers, witnesses later told police, he had been wobbling and stumbling, court papers say.. Before he violently crashed as he entered a curve near the intersection with Volunteer Drive, his surviving passenger was asking him to slow down, the survivor told police at the hospital, court files state. That backseat survivor, Charles Nardella, 19, of Gaithersburg, was wearing a seat belt.

In their sentencing memo, prosecutors cite two previous infractions they contend offered Coffay warning signs. They describe a 2008 incident in which they say Coffay admitted destroying a neighbor’s mailbox and a 2009 citation in Harrisonburg, Va., site of James Madison, for alcohol possession by a minor. In the aftermath of those acts, prosecutors say, Coffay attended counseling sessions about alcohol abuse and safety, and also had restrictions placed on his driving.

Prosecutors also recount a 2010 incident they call “troubling” in its parallels to part of the Olney crash, in which an empty car registered to the Coffay family was found upended and pinned atop a mailbox pillar. The resident whose lawn the car landed in called police, who tracked the car to the Coffay household, prosecutors said.

In their memo, the prosecutors include photos and text that they say appeared on Coffay’s Facebook on the night of the accident, including a photo of him holding what appears to be a beer bottle while wearing a sandwich-board type of costume made from a Captain Morgan box, and his listed interests of “partying” and “drinking.”

“The problem of young people drinking and driving is unfortunately relatively common,” prosecutors wrote, acknowledging a thought some Magruder parents had themselves shared during earlier court appearances for Coffay. But, said prosecutors, “flight from a major car wreck is a comparatively rare event.”

Adams is an associate judge in Circuit Court in Frederick County and was brought in to the case after prosecutors noted that the fathers of Datt and Hoover are well-known lawyers in Montgomery County with ties to the local legal community that would have made it “difficult” for both sides to get a fair and impartial trial, had Coffay not pleaded guilty.

John McGuire, Haeley McGuire’s father, was not in court but one of her uncles read a statement on his behalf.

John McGuire wrote that he cries every day and some days many times. He said he felt he had failed his daughter: “I didn’t do my job. I didn’t do my job. I didn’t protect Haeley,” he wrote. He also said in the statement that he did not come to the hearing because “I don’t want to give Kevin (Coffay) the opportunity to unburden himself” with an apology. This was a time, he continued, “when I’m sorry is not enough.”

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By  |  01:37 PM ET, 01/05/2012

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