Forgiveness is not a common thing to hear from a family who lost a loved one to a drunken driver.
Make no mistake, the parents and siblings of Calvin Hanchett are angry. Some of them said so as they spoke at a Rock County Court hearing Friday.
But they’re also working to find forgiveness, and they’re hoping for good to grow from tragedy.
The occasion was the sentencing of a man who was Calvin’s friend. He was also the one who was drunk and in the driver’s seat when an SUV went off the road on the western outskirts of Janesville on May 3, 2017.
Leon E. Bridges, 29, of rural Brooklyn, pleaded guilty Friday to homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle after a prior intoxicant-related conviction and causing injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle.
Judge Karl Hanson sentenced Bridges to five years in prison and nine years of extended supervision for ending Calvin’s life and another year in prison and three years of supervision for causing the injuries of a third man in the vehicle, Michael D. Asmus of Janesville.
Asmus suffered fractures of the pelvis and lower back.
The sentence was stiffer than the five years of prison and 10 years of supervision the attorneys recommended.
‘A happy boy’
Calvin came to his family at age 2 with a background of abuse and neglect and with cognitive disabilities, the family told the court.
The family loved him as their own, his mother, Stephanie Hanchett said.
“Even though he struggled at times, he was a happy boy,” she said.
He joined Special Olympics, where he made many friends, including one he was texting at the moment of the crash, his mother said.
He loved to sing, and he joined the local curling club, she continued. He had many Facebook friends with whom he corresponded, including staff from his high school, she said.
“Everyone Calvin met became his instant friend. Calvin struggled to understand the motives of others and was often taken advantage of by his peers.
He was a follower and easily led. He struggled with alcohol and was in and out of treatment.
“Sometimes he would tell us of his struggles and his determination to do better,” she continued.
“On the day of his death, I don’t know what he was thinking when he got into the car with you, Mr. Bridges. But I believe he trusted you, that you would get him to wherever you were going safely.
“I go over and over in my mind what it was like for him when the car began to swerve and he got bounced around. … I can’t imagine the terror he felt and the pain, when the car finally spun out of control and hit the tree.”
She sobbed as she continued: “I wonder if he was conscious when the car slammed into the tree and he was thrown into a field. I wonder if he lay in the field where he landed and knew he was going to die.
“My heart is broken. My husband and our children are devastated that our son and their brother died such a violent death. We’ve been angry. We miss him. We miss his laugh. … There is a hole in our family and in our hearts that will never go away.
“Mr. Bridges,” she continued, “I want you to know that God is helping me to forgive you. I need God’s forgiveness. I pray that you will seek his forgiveness. You have hurt so many people by choosing to drink and drive.”
Stephanie asked the judge that Bridges’ prison time “be long enough to convince us and this community that Calvin’s life mattered and that no one should die in this horrific and violent way because of the decision you made … to drink and drive.
“I also hope ... when you are out of prison, that you might speak to others about what happens when you drink and drive and how it affected your lives and the lives of so many,” she said.
‘There is hope’
Calvin’s sister Sarah Brenan told of her life with Calvin, of his struggles and the joys he brought to his loved ones. She said she wanted an example to be made of the tragedy.
“I also want people to take, very seriously, alcoholism and how it affects everyone around them, and I really hope that Leo comes to AA meetings and really embraces the program. … There is hope for you,” Brenan said.
Calvin’s father, Jon Hanchett, said Calvin was excited about his upcoming 40th birthday before his life ended.
“We feel very bad for Mr. Bridges. We really do,” Jon said.
“He suffered a great deal. … It was the Lord’s will that Calvin died. It was the Lord’s will that Leon lived, and we just pray that we can forgive him. It’s very necessary for us as a family. It’s necessary for him to receive forgiveness in his family, as well.”
Jon said his family wanted Bridges to share his story with others who have been in trouble with drinking.
“We don’t want what has happened to go for naught. We want good to come out of it,” he said. “And that good can only come now from our forgiveness of Leon and also for his manning up and taking care of his responsibilities.”
‘Just terribly sad’
Then Bridges’ mother, Karen Raymond, spoke. She said he has cried to her several times because “he wishes it was him and not Calvin.”
Leon died at the scene and was revived, and the same happened on the operating table, she said. He also lost the right to see his children because of this, she said. And she worries about something happening in prison because he lost some of the bone in his skull.
She will have to trust in God to keep him safe, she said.
“We’re all just terribly sad that this happened,” said Bridges’ stepfather, Richard Raymond. “We hope that as a result of the sentence … that Leon will come out of this and be a positive influence on many people. … We just wanted Calvin’s family to know how sorry we all are.”
The three friends had been drinking that day, defense attorney Matt Lanta acknowledged at the hearing. Then they decided to take a trip out of town.
Asmus told officers that Bridges was speeding, passing other cars and traveling into oncoming traffic, according to the complaint.
Hanchett and Bridges were thrown from the vehicle. Asmus, the only one wearing a seat belt, was pinned inside.
Lanta said in cases like this, the state Department of Corrections requires absolute sobriety, close monitoring and intense treatment.
Bridges suffered a brain injury and a broken back, and his recovery included alcohol and mental-health treatment and relearning to walk and talk, Lanta said.
Bridges apologized to Calvin’s family. He noted he will live with this for the rest of his life, a prospect he called “terrifying.”
Hanson said that after hearing from the family, he wishes he had known Calvin and that he might have wanted to be his Facebook friend.
“I truly feel our community has lost a wonderful member of the community,” Hanson said.
After the hearing was over, the two families met outside the courtroom.
Some of them embraced. Jon Hanchett was overheard saying he appreciated what the Raymonds had said.
They chatted quietly for several minutes before parting ways.