When finally given his chance Friday, Aaron M. Gillett turned to the victim’s side of the courtroom after waiting to do so for five years.
He was “so sorry” for the fatal crash in the town of Delavan that killed Clarence Watson, 86, of Elkhorn, and injured Watson’s wife, Yuka, on Jan. 22, 2015.
The case dragged on through various appeals until both sides reached a deal Nov. 13 to have Gillett plead guilty to homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and operating with a restricted controlled substance in his system as a second offense.
The saga reached its conclusion Friday with Gillett’s sentencing, and when it was his turn to speak to the judge, Gillett took his chance to show the Watson family the remorse that his lawyer said was apparent every time the two spoke about the case.
“There is no excuse for what happened that day, and there never will be,” he said. “And if I could trade places with him, I would. And if I could find a way to bring him back, I would bring him back.
“But I can’t.”
Lawyers for both sides said they worked hard to reach a fair resolution to the case, which included a mutual recommendation for five years in prison and five more of extended supervision. Judge Kristine Drettwan accepted that sentence.
It all could have been avoided, however. Dennis Melowski, Gillett’s lawyer, said his client was supposed to be receiving inpatient care through Veterans Affairs, but he was released six days before the crash because the facility where Gillett was staying didn’t have enough beds to keep him.
Gillett’s military service was key to his defense in the case, too.
Although test results showed he had traces of marijuana and difluoroethane, a chemical found in compressed-air household cleaners, in his system, Gillett had argued to an appeals court that a siren caused him to have a “flashback” and lose consciousness.
The defense maintained that the flashback and loss of consciousness stemmed from Gillett’s service with the U.S. Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder.
Gillett was at a family dinner one summer evening when the 6 p.m. whistle went off, said his aunt, Rebecca Baertschi. The sound was similar to that of an air raid system.
Gillett jumped out of his chair, went under the table and yelled for everyone to “get down.”
“The room went silent,” she said. “None of us knew what to do. We just sat there looking at each other. Sadness took over.”
Both Baertschi and Gillett’s mom, Deanna, gave their condolences to the Watson family.
Diane Donohoo, who left the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office to join the one in Racine County but kept this case, said while this incident was a tragedy, it was still a crime. She said Gillett will be able to find therapy while he is incarcerated and under supervision.
Norman Eckstaedt spoke in court Friday for the Watson family. He worked with Watson, affectionately referred to as “Doc,” whom he viewed as much more than a co-worker—he saw him as his friend, adoptive father and mentor of nearly 40 years.
Watson started out as a simple guy from a farm in upstate New York who turned into a success in the hospitality industry, Eckstaedt said.
Watson would talk to a company’s busboy the same way he would the CEO, his friend said, and throughout his career he remained humble.
Eckstaedt called Watson selfless, charismatic and vibrant. He misses his daily phone calls with Doc.
“I don’t get to pick that phone up anymore,” he said. “I don’t get to spend Thanksgiving with him anymore. I don’t get to see him for Christmas, for his birthday, for his anniversary.”
Even though the crash was five years ago, Eckstaedt said he is not convinced the sentencing will mean closure—especially as he shared his remarks with a photo of Watson displayed for the court looking back at him.
Gillett said taking someone’s life is never OK.
“The way you talk about him, he sounds like a great man,” he told the Watson family. “And I can’t believe I took him from you guys. I’ll never forgive myself for this. And I don’t expect you guys to, either.