The teenage driver in an alcohol-related crash that claimed the life of a student from Sherwood High School and left another severely injured was sentenced to serve an 18-month jail term Thursday at an emotional hearing that drew dozens of friends and relatives to a Rockville courtroom.
Austin Donovan Hall, now 18, lost control while driving 119 mph on Labor Day weekend 2014 in a residential area of Olney, Md, where the speed limit was 35. He had just left an underage drinking party less than a mile away, and the Chrysler convertible went off the road, hitting a tree and a light pole.
Shawn Gangloff, 15, was ejected and later died of his injuries; Max Dechter, then 17, was hospitalized for months.
Hall pleaded guilty in July to a charge of vehicular manslaughter in Gangloff’s death and a charge of causing a life-threatening injury while driving impaired by alcohol, in connection with Dechter’s injuries. Hall’s lawyer said at the time that the teenager wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Hall was “heavily intoxicated” — with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11, which exceeded the 0.08 limit even for adult drivers — when he was tested more than 2
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Quirk described Hall’s actions as “reckless and outrageous behavior,” fueled by alcohol at an unsupervised party. “The losses are enormous, and they’re palpable.”
Quirk sentenced Hall to eight years in prison, with all but 18 months suspended. Quirk gave Hall credit for 149 days of electronic monitoring and curfew he has served and indicated that Hall would at some point be transferred to the county’s Pre-Release Center, which allows inmates to leave during the day for work.
Before a packed courtroom, Gangloff’s mother, Allison, a teacher at Olney Elementary School, described the heartbreak of losing her son — a teenager who she said loved life and was an avid lacrosse player, fisherman, dirt-bike rider, skier and artist.
With Shawn’s father, Rick, beside her in the courtroom, she said the couple have nightmares, thinking about their son being ejected more than 100 feet from the crash site and not being noticed at first because he was so far away. Her voice broke.
“Every day we wake up and realize that our Shawn is gone,” she said, describing reminders that trigger waves of grief: the sight of another lacrosse player, Shawn’s bedroom, the school where she works and he attended classes as a child.
“I don’t feel right going out and doing normal things because it seems so wrong that our Shawn can’t,” she said. At work, she keeps a walkie-talkie nearby, to call for help in case she has a panic attack while teaching, she said.
Her husband, a teacher at Edison High School in Silver Spring, drives home from his job past the cemetery where their son is buried, she said. He works with teenagers and sees them growing up, reminded that Shawn will always be 15, she said.
“Shawn will never get to drive a car, graduate high school, go to prom, go to college,” she said.
Allison Gangloff said her son was not intoxicated or impaired the night of the crash. “He simply chose the wrong person to get a ride home from,” she said.
Dechter, who was given a low chance of survival immediately after the crash, also spoke before the court, saying he will pay for the rest of his life for his decision to climb into a car with a driver who had been drinking. Dechter said he spent six months in hospitals, struggling to relearn speaking, walking, eating, “basically everything,” he said.
“I will never have the use of my right arm,” he said. “I have no idea what extent my brain injury will be. I paid with the life of a good friend.”
Some in the courtroom dabbed at their eyes as he and the Gangloff family spoke. Hall’s attorney, Craig Schoenfeld, described the teen driver as “a good person” from a good family who made “a horrible mistake.” Hall’s parents spoke to the victims and the court, his father describing his remorse.
“He still has difficulty forgiving himself for the accident,” Robert Hall said. “Every day he looks in the mirror, he has to face the fact that Shawn passed away due to his actions.”
Near the end of the hearing, Hall addressed the families directly.
“Words can’t describe the way I feel about everything that happened,” Hall told them, saying the teenagers were his friends and describing his regard for them. He said he wanted to make a difference in the community by talking about what happened.
“What Shawn would want is for me to speak out,” he said. “It was a tragedy, and Shawn was a great kid, and he’s still in my heart, as he is in all of ours, because he affected everybody’s life.”
Prosecutors had asked the judge to impose the maximum penalty of 12 years, suspending all but a period falling within sentencing guidelines, which called for incarceration of three months to six years.
As part of the sentence, the judge said Hall also will serve the maximum period of five years of probation with no alcohol or illegal drug use, among a range of other conditions.
Quirk also ordered Hall to do 150 hours of community service, and said he would like to see Hall speak to audiences in middle schools and high schools and other organizations to discuss his conduct and the effects of drunken driving.
The Gangloffs did not wish to speak after the proceeding. “There is no joy or celebration in the sentence,” their attorney said. “They are still going home without their son.”
Jackie Dechter, the mother of the injured teen, said the family was prepared for the kind of sentence that might be given. “I thought it was fair,” she said. “We hope Austin takes advantage and does something good with his life.” Hall’s attorney said his family would not comment. “There are no winners today,” he said.
Dan Morse contributed to this report.