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Gretchen Schlosser, Forum News Service, Published August 09 2013

Cokato man gets 67 months in crash that killed 3 people

WILLMAR – The driver convicted in a crash that killed three last summer near Willmar was sentenced Friday afternoon during a hearing when surviving family members described the loss of “three generations of women” from the family.

Paul Anthony Wickenhauser, 22, of Cokato, was sentenced to the expected 67 months in prison on three felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide or operation for causing the motor vehicle crash. Wickenhauser had been drinking alcohol prior to the crash.

As part of his sentence handed down by District Judge Donald M. Spilseth in Kandiyohi County District Court, Wickenhauser was also ordered to pay $3,000 in fines and also pay restitution, which has not yet been determined in the case.

The three charges for criminal vehicular homicide or operation with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more include one count for each of the three victims: Martha Stoffers, 68, of Atwater; her daughter-in-law, Michelle Hoffman, 40, of Eden Prairie; and Hoffman’s 8-year-old daughter, Julia. They were killed Aug. 17, 2012, near where U.S. Highway 12 intersects with Kandiyohi County Road 127. Hoffman’s 5-year-old son, Jason, also suffered injuries in the fiery crash.

Wickenhauser had entered a plea agreement on July 29 to the 67-month sentence and was immediately taken into custody by the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office, which will transport him to prison.

Before the sentence was handed down, family members gave statements. Also read into the court record were statements from the two men who rescued the two Hoffman children from the burning vehicle.

Mike Hoffman, son to Stoffers, husband to Michelle Hoffman and father of Julia Hoffman, told the court that he suffers from pain and heartache every day because he doesn’t have his mother to support him in his time of loss and because his wife isn’t there to watch their other children grow and mature and that Wickenhauser took his daughter’s entire life that was yet to be lived.

“Taking our precious Julia from us has caused pain that cannot be explained,” Hoffman read from his statement. “Our family is incomplete. ... Nothing can pay back what Mr. Wickenhauser has taken from us.”

Missy Hoffman, who lost her mother, sister and niece, told Wickenhauser that his bad choice on that day last August was a fatal mistake that had cost her family so much.

“What is there to say that can make you understand?” she questioned. “You took three generations of women from my family.”

Dressed in a white shirt and tie, Wickenhauser faced the Stoffers/Hoffman family members when it was his turn to make a statement. The victims’ family members filled one side of the largest courtroom at the Willmar courthouse. The young man apologized just as he did in the plea hearing last week.

“I know I can’t apologize enough,” he said, with emotion in his voice. “I hope you will be able to find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

Matt Gomez was one of the first people on the scene, according to his statement. He slammed on his brakes to avoid the crashed vehicles and drove through the debris before calling 911 to report the crash. He said the images of the scene are burned into his mind.

“I can see the kids screaming in the vehicle, as it’s on fire,” he said.

Jose Alvarado also gave a statement, detailing how he checked on both of the front seat passengers, Stoffers and Michelle Hoffman, and found that neither had a pulse. He said he heard Jason Hoffman screaming and pulled him out of the van before going to his sister.

Alvarado said that Julia Hoffman had a pulse and that he worked to get her leg free before pulling her out through a window. He said he made Julia promise that they would get out of the vehicle together.

He learned the next day that the girl had died. “It made me feel sad and that I failed to save her,” his statement read.

Alvarado also said that he watched as the fire engulfed the van and the front-seat passengers. “I thank God for putting me there that day because I don’t wish for anyone else to have to see that,” he said.

As part of the plea agreement, 12 additional felony charges and one misdemeanor for open bottle were dismissed. During his plea hearing, Wickenhauser said he had five to six beers after work in Cokato and then went home for an hour before going to the Dairy Queen there. He said he then drove westbound on Highway 12 toward his brother’s home in Murdock.

According to the State Patrol, Stoffers was driving east in a 2001 Chrysler Town and Country van. Wickenhauser’s 2004 Chevy Silverado pickup was traveling west and hit the van head-on. During the plea hearing, 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.

At the scene of the crash, Wickenhauser admitted to drinking beer and a preliminary breath test showed a blood alcohol content of 0.07 percent. A blood sample was taken at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis, which showed 0.09 percent. The threshold for impaired driving in Minnesota is 0.08 percent.