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By Gretchen Schlosser, Published July 29 2013

Driver in triple-fatality accident pleads guilty

WILLMAR, Minn. — The drunken driver of a car involved in a crash that killed three people in west-central Minnesota pleaded guilty this morning to three felony charges.

Paul Anthony Wickenhauser, 22, of Cokato, entered the guilty pleas to three counts of criminal vehicular homicide or operation with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. There was one count for each of the three victims, Marta Stoffers, 68, of Atwater, her daughter-in-law, Michelle Hoffman, 40, of Eden Prairie, and Hoffman’s 8-year-old daughter Julia, killed in the Aug. 17, 2012, crash east of Willmar in Kandiyohi County.

As part of the plea agreement reached in Kandiyohi County District Court, 12 additional felony charges, and one misdemeanor for open bottle, will be dismissed.

Wickenhauser kept his answers brief during questioning by District Judge Donald M. Spilseth and his attorney, Lynne Torgerson, but also made a statement to the victim’s family gathered in the courtroom.

“I’d like to apologize to the family,” the young man said, his voice wavering with emotion. “I hope that someday you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

Wickenhauser said he had five to six beers after work at his place of employment in Cokato and then went home for an hour before going to the Dairy Queen there. He said he was driving westbound on U.S. Highway 12 to go to his brother’s home in Murdock and that he had thought about driving after drinking.

“I thought I waited long enough for the majority of the alcohol to go through my system,” he said, recalling that he looked down at the cruise control and looked up to see the centerline and headlights coming at him.

Wickenhauser said he came to and found that the front of his pickup was smashed and that his airbag had deployed. He recalled seeing flames to the side. The van driven by Stoffers and carrying the other victims and Hoffman’s 5-year-old son, Jason, who was injured, caught fire after the crash, according to court documents and testimony in the case.

As part of the plea agreement, Wickenhauser will likely receive a 67-month prison sentence, which is at the low end of the state sentencing guidelines for the criminal vehicular charges.

Wickenhauser will be sentenced Aug. 9.