Judge says no to reduced sentence in St. Francis DWI death

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2010 - 9:56 PM

Jeff Hettwer was sitting in the back seat when the driver smashed into a parked car in St. Francis.

There was a persuasive reason, Anoka County District Judge Lawrence Johnson said Wednesday, why he gave Christopher Anderson a staggered sentence for drunken driving in a crash that killed one of his passengers in 2008. The first six months have already been served in the workhouse, but the last six months are spread over the next four years to coincide with the anniversary of Jeff Hettwer's death.

In a move that angered Hettwer's relatives and friends, Anderson asked the judge during a hearing Wednesday to stay the first part of the staggered portion, which is 45 days in the workhouse with possible work release or house arrest. If granted, Anderson's attorney said, his client could continue to develop his growing asset-management business and attempt to repay $30,000 in restitution.

Johnson took little time in denying the request, saying he would have had to be "overwhelmed" before modifying the sentence. Afterward, Jeff Hettwer's wife, Kelly, said the hearing did nothing but stir up bad feelings. "Relief is just nowhere in my emotions," she said.

Still, tears flowed freely when Hettwer talked about Jeff, an artist who was out with some high school buddies at a festival in St. Francis the night he died in June 2008. Anderson, a cousin of one of the friends, drove them from the bar to a house less than a mile away. Anderson smashed into a parked car and fled the scene.

Johnson said he could have sentenced Anderson to four years in prison but decided on a staggered penalty that typically provides a carrot or hammer in drunken-driving cases to keep people sober. But Anderson's case wasn't typical because somebody died, he said.

A review hearing is common before the staggered part of a sentence begins. In arguing for the sentencing stay, John Lucas, Anderson's attorney, said Anderson, now 27, had no probation violations, had completed his community service and a treatment program, and hadn't touched alcohol or drugs.

Anderson's need to have flexible hours to meet with clients is a "sensible aspect to our request," Lucas said. Anderson's probation officer said she was disappointed he hadn't made an initial $50 restitution payment required a year ago. She also hadn't seen remorse in Anderson, she told the judge.

The family and county attorney's office were shocked to learn Anderson was looking for a reason not to serve the rest of his sentence, said Assistant County Attorney Jennifer Verdaja. "A lesser sentence minimizes what he has done," she said.

After the hearing, Lucas said it would be inappropriate for Anderson to comment. Anderson had to wade through more than 50 people in the hall who had come to support Hettwer.

"I was impressed with the judge's comments," said Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. He was joined at the hearing by Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, a longtime advocate for victims of drunken driving.

In a letter to Johnson, Kelly Hettwer said, she reminded the judge of what he said the day of Anderson's sentencing: "I cannot provide closure and there will be no justice." She then wrote: "Your honor, leniency for Mr. Anderson has already been granted ... He lived. Who will grant me leniency on would-be anniversaries or the day when my children are born without Jeff's last name?"

Earlier this week Hettwer, 32, retraced the short drive from the bar in St. Francis to the nearby home, stopping at a small wreath marking the spot of her husband's death. Besides speaking to convicted drunken drivers, she is lobbying the St. Francis City Council to regulate bars from overserving drinkers at the city's annual outdoor Pioneer Days festival. Last year, she gave rides home to intoxicated people.

A Thursday golf tournament will raise money for a college scholarship in Jeff Hettwer's name.

"He was so genuine," she said. "I miss him so much."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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