Jose Hernandez Solano spent years working in the United States in order to send money back home to Mexico to support his three children and aging parents.
Friends said he was “strong as an ox” and worked long hours in local kitchens where he loved to cook, was quick to help others and always offered a smile and a hug.
Hernandez Solano was biking home last November from his job at Brasa Premium Rotisserie on Grand Avenue in St. Paul when an erratic driver struck him and left him in the roadway at Grand and W. 7th Street. Dozens of supporters packed a courtroom Wednesday as the driver, Dustin Hegner Royce, was sentenced to four years in prison on one count of criminal vehicular homicide.
“You ripped out a piece of our hearts,” Georgia Meyers, who worked with Hernandez Solano at the former Christos restaurant in St. Paul’s Union Depot, said to Hegner Royce. “A piece of us died when you took Jose’s life. Had you met Jose, you’d be a better man.”
Hegner Royce, 29, of St. Paul, pleaded guilty in June to striking Hernandez Solano. The crime occurred about 12:10 a.m. on Nov. 26. An unconscious Hernandez Solano, 52, was taken to a hospital, where he died several days later.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr settled on a midrange sentence for Hegner Royce, whose attorney asked for 10 years’ probation or staggered incarceration spread over five years to be served on the anniversary of the crime.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Lee Atakpu pushed for the highest term possible, about five years. The low end of the sentencing guidelines called for a little over three years.
Atakpu said Hegner Royce tried to minimize his responsibility by saying at his plea hearing that he didn’t know what he had hit, although surveillance video showed that Hernandez Solano was nearly centered with the front of Hegner Royce’s SUV when he was struck. Hernandez Solano’s bike lights were on at the time, and his body flew up onto the hood of the vehicle, Atakpu said.
Hegner Royce also fled and lied to authorities and has not divulged what happened to the vehicle, which remains missing, the prosecutor said.
Hegner Royce and his mother, Abbey Hegner, were charged four months after the crime; she is charged with aiding her son’s coverup. Her case remains active.
“The reality is it wasn’t a momentary lapse” in judgment, Atakpu said. “Still, here today, he has not taken responsibility for what happened to that SUV.”
Hernandez Solano’s family and friends also asked for the maximum term.
Dan Whelan, a co-worker at Brasa, said he worked with Hernandez Solano the night of the collision. The two traded nods in a silent goodbye, which continues to haunt Whelan.
“The loss of Mr. Hernandez Solano was the loss of a family member,” Whelan told the court.
Hernandez Solano’s family in Mexico submitted a letter read in court by Atakpu.
“Our father would always tell us that he wanted us to study and he wanted us to have a college degree, so we could have a good future,” said the family’s letter. “So we would not suffer as he did. Now it causes us grief to know that he won’t be able to see our efforts, that our studies have made us become professional people.”
Defense attorney Paul Baertschi called Hegner Royce’s boss and stepmother to testify on his behalf. Baertschi also said his client was panicked from an encounter that night with someone who had previously robbed him, and that’s why he ran a red light and struck Hernandez Solano.
“My son is not a monster,” said his stepmother, Jennifer Baker.
Hegner Royce cried during Baker’s testimony, but he remained visibly unmoved as he read a statement to the court. “I’m truly sorry,” he said. “Only through forgiveness we all might heal. But never forget. I will never forget.”
The judge said it was unclear whether Hegner Royce was remorseful for his actions or for being caught, and she said Hegner Royce left “gaping holes” in his plea.