Margaret (Maggie) Lopez's youngest grandchild, Henry, squirmed in his mom's arms Thursday while his parents, his grandpa and other family members watched the woman who caused her death sentenced to almost five years.
Elizabeth Renee Rhodes was drunk and driving the wrong way on Hwy. 10 in Mounds View on a cold, clear New Year's night in 2008 when she crashed head-on into a squad car driven by Ramsey County sheriff's deputy Joseph Lopez. Maggie Lopez was on a ride-along with her husband of more than 20 years.
Rhodes, 24, entered an Alford plea in October in Ramsey County District Court to charges of criminal vehicular operation and criminal vehicular homicide. (In an Alford plea, a defendant admits there is enough evidence to convict but declines to admit guilt.) Her attorney, Fredrick Knaak, said she admitted causing the accident but had no memory of it because of her own injuries.
Tom Ditlefsen, the oldest of Maggie Lopez's three sons, spoke in court of his family's heartbreak, saying they had lost a mentor, a friend, a doting grandmother.
Lopez's middle son, Tim Ditlefsen, also spoke, saying "I know whatever punishment there is won't bring my mother back. ... When you take a life, you have to pay the consequences for it."
Prosecutor Lawrence Schultz laid out the accident: Rhodes and her then-boyfriend were drunk when a Mounds View police officer went to their apartment on a domestic dispute call about 2:45 that morning.
The officer left them to cool off. He was answering a call on a nearby county road about 40 minutes later when he saw Rhodes' vehicle traveling east in the westbound lanes of Hwy. 10, according to the complaint.
The crash happened before the officer could catch up to the car.
Joseph Lopez has been a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy for more than 27 years. Maggie Lopez liked learning about his job and often went on ride-alongs. Earlier that night, they had sat in his squad car watching Christmas lights.
Rhodes crashed head-on into the squad car. Maggie Lopez died at the crash scene in her husband's arms.
Rhodes suffered a torn aorta. She walks with a pronounced limp and must undergo several reconstructive surgeries, Knaak said. She has married since the accident and has a newborn child. Her husband sat beside her mother and father in the back of the courtroom Thursday afternoon, red-eyed and silent.
Her father sobbed when District Judge James H. Clark Jr. sentenced her to a year and a day for the criminal vehicular operation charge and 58 months for the criminal vehicular homicide charge. The sentences are to be served concurrently, and Rhodes must serve at least two-thirds of the time in prison and one-third on supervised release. She also was ordered to serve three years' probation and was fined a total of $9,000.
Rhodes' bail was revoked and immediately taken into custody.
Knaak, Rhodes' attorney, had asked the judge for sentence lesser than what is normally given for such an offense, saying some good could come from the tragedy if Rhodes can speak to other young people, showing them the error of her ways.
But Judge Clark said there were too many aggravating factors in the crime to allow him to depart from sentencing guidelines, namely that Rhodes had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19 percent, more than twice the legal limit for driving, and that she was speeding the wrong way down Hwy. 10.
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992