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Tom Cherveny, Forum News Service, Published February 02 2013

Driver who killed baby in Minn. crash hears tearful first-hand account from grieving family

GLENWOOD, Minn. — Dana Allen Schoen left a Pope County courtroom Jan. 25 with the first person accounts of a family’s unending anguish to remember and a 48-month prison sentence to serve.

Teary-eyed family, friends and supporters of Heather and Brad Bigler of Marshall filled the courtroom to standing room capacity as District Judge Charles Glasrud sentenced Schoen, 38, of Starbuck to prison for his conviction on criminal vehicular homicide for the July 28, 2012, death of the couple’s 5-month-old son, Drake.

The judge ordered Schoen serve a minimum of 32 months in prison, and the remaining 16 months as supervised release. The court also ordered that he pay restitution, which has yet to be determined.

The court stayed execution of concurrent sentences of 13 months and 15 months in prison for convictions on two separate counts of criminal vehicular operation.

The sentence was part of a plea agreement reached December 4. The 48-month sentence is in accordance with sentencing guidelines. The court said it had received no motions for an upward departure.

Schoen is accused of having a blood alcohol of .351 — more than three times the legal limit — when he crossed the center line on Minnesota Highway 29 in his GMC pickup truck on the night of July 28 and struck the passenger side of a GMC Acadia driven northbound by Heather Bigler.

Drake was in his car seat, which hung by its straps outside the ripped open vehicle that had come to a stop off the roadway. His eyes were closed, and he was struggling to breathe, his mother told the court. “I knew he wasn’t going to make it,’’ Heather said as she told of how her anguish began.

“It’s extremely difficult to put the pain and heartache I am struggling with second by second into words,’’ she said.

Her husband, Brad, 33, was lying curled under debris and unconscious. He suffered injuries to his head and broken bones. Heather’s grandmother, Sharon Schuler, 74, of Granite Falls was pinned in the backseat. Her elbow and the bones in her right arm, which had been atop Drake’s car seat, were shattered. She was in and out of consciousness.

Schuler told the court that seconds before she heard Heather scream and headlights appear, she was rubbing the giggling child’s head, and telling him: “Drake, someday you are going to be a great NBA basketball player.’’

Drake died in his mother’s arms at the emergency room in Starbuck. Still unconscious, Brad was being prepared for a flight to medical care in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Heather handed the lifeless body of her son to her father, Phil Smith of Sacred Heart, so that she could join her husband and grandmother on their medical flight.

Smith said he began to sob uncontrollably as a young paramedic and nurse put their arms around him and wept openly with him.

Smith and other family members were part of a five-vehicle caravan that had left a wedding reception in Granite Falls earlier that night. They were only a few minutes from reaching a family cabin near Starbuck when Schoen swerved across the center line.

Brad Bigler and Schuler both have permanent, physical disabilities. In response to questions from the judge, Bigler said he is not sure if he will ever be able to play catch with their surviving children, Taleigha and Nash, ages 4 and 2 at the time of the crash.

Brad Bigler had lost his mother, Diane Bigler-Hagenow, 55, in a kayak accident on Hawk Creek one summer earlier. He is back at his job as the men’s basketball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

Heather has returned part time as a counselor with Marshall Public Schools. The family members asked the court for a longer sentence for Schoen, who has two prior drunk driving convictions.

They also expressed their sadness that no one had intervened to stop Schoen from driving while intoxicated. According to their statements in court, Schoen had been on Lake Minnewaska with friends, had gone home and returned to the Water’s Edge to drink again with friends before getting into his pickup that night.

“There were so many people who could have stopped this,’’ Brad Bigler said. “I know that no winners are coming out today.’’

He pleaded with Schoen, father of two boys, to learn from the experience.

Schoen sat face forward as the victims told their accounts. He was only a few feet from a large screen on which the family concluded its victim impact statements by showing video clips of their playful times with Drake. With a courtroom weeping and dabbing tears, Glasrud ordered a recess before returning to issue the sentence.

Schoen’s silence following the event had troubled family members, who expressed concern about his apparent lack of remorse.

Schoen ended the silence moments before telling the court he was ready for his punishment.

“I’ve thought of what to say a hundred times,’’ Schoen said. “[I’m] not sure what to say that wouldn’t make matters worse.’’

He apologized, and said he was to blame for the suffering.

“I’m ashamed of my actions,’’ he told the court.

His attorney, Jeffrey Kuhn, said his client asked for no leniency and accepted full responsibility for the harm he had caused. Schoen is undergoing treatment for chemical dependency.