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Dave Roepke, Published January 19 2011

‘He needs to suffer for his actions’

It wasn’t raw accounts of the anguish he caused that drew heaving sobs from Neil Walton at his sentencing hearing on Tuesday.

It was the prospect of forgiveness.

Rob and Deb Baumbach’s family urged a Cass County judge to throw the book at Walton, 32, of Lisbon, N.D., for the April 18, 2010, crash that killed the Fargo couple on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Walton was talking to a friend and missed the stop sign on Highway 18 in rural Cass County about 10 miles south of Fargo. As he traveled through the intersection at roughly 55 mph, the Baumbachs were northbound on Highway 81 on motorcycles and hit the side of his truck – a crash for which Walton pleaded guilty Tuesday to a reckless driving charge, a Class A misdemeanor.

Family members said the charge was insufficient and asked for a stiffer penalty than the 10 days in jail, 1½ years of probation and 50 hours of volunteer work Cass County District Court Judge Lisa Fair McEvers ordered Walton to serve.

“He needs to suffer for his actions, as we’ve suffered these last months,” said Steve Roerick, uncle of Rob Baumbach.

“Your family’s probably here today. Because of you, mine is not,” Diane Baumbach, sister-in-law of Rob, said to Walton. “You made a decision to be careless. They didn’t.”

Walton maintained his composure until hearing the comments of Karla Thompson, a friend of the couple who was riding with them the day they died.

“A little piece of all of us died that day,” Thompson said. “Not just us, but Neil’s family, too.”

“I’m not here to condemn you, Neil,” she said, turning to address a crying Walton directly. “I’m here to give you God’s love.”

Thompson asked Walton to honor the lives of those he’d taken by helping others, imploring him to find out “what joy they got from life by giving.”

Moments later, speaking on his own behalf, Walton said he did hope to help people any way he can in the wake of the crash, even if it means the Baumbachs’ family calling him “just to scream at me about how worthless I am. Anything.”

“I will never ask for your forgiveness because I will never forgive myself,” he said, having turned from Fair McEvers to speak to family in the audience.

After Walton said his piece, Thompson reached over the railing separating the court from the crowd to embrace him. After the hearing, family and friends of Walton and the Baumbachs gathered outside the courtroom and talked.

Prosecutors had asked for 180 days in jail for Walton, a farmer. Assistant Cass County State’s Attorney Cheri Clark said there were three rumble strips before the pair of stop signs flanking the road.

“This is more than running a stop sign,” she said. “This is running many, many signs.”

Clark only listed three prior traffic offenses for Walton – a seat-belt violation, a speeding ticket and a drunken-driving conviction. Court records show at least one other, a reckless driving charge he pleaded guilty to in March 2007.

Clark said the state’s attorney’s office references traffic offenses included in the Department of Transportation’s driving records, which doesn’t include some older violations.

Police found Walton was not speeding and was not intoxicated, defense attorney Bruce Quick said in asking for no jail time.

“This is a good person who did a bad thing unintentionally,” Quick said.

No restitution was sought because a settlement in a related lawsuit requires Walton to pay the family $50,000, Quick said.

In addition to the 10 days in jail, community service and probation, Fair McEvers ordered Walton to give up his driver’s license for 90 days. The longest possible jail term was one year.

“I don’t see any real purpose in punishment,” Fair McEvers said in explaining the sentencing. “This could have happened to probably any of us.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535