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Barnes gets 300-day sentence for death of Crowheart girl

Feb 1, 2013 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

The man convicted of three misdemeanor charges in the 2011 death of a Wind River Elementary School student will serve roughly 10 months at the Fremont County Detention Center. MaKayla Marie Strahle, 11, of Crowheart, died Dec. 20, 2011, after William "Dean" Barnes hit her with his car after she exited the school bus.

"I've lost a little bit of sleep over it," Lander 9th Judicial District Court Judge Norman E. Young said about the case against Barnes. "Everybody feels bad about this case."

Following nearly 90 minutes of testimony Thursday afternoon, Young rendered a 300-day jail sentence for the misdemeanor charge of homicide by vehicle. The maximum sentence for such offense is one year.

Young sentenced Barnes to the maximum time of 20 days each for two misdemeanors: maximum speed/too fast for conditions and passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights. The three sentences will run concurrently.

Young also ordered Barnes to pay roughly $13,000 in restitution.

A 12-member jury found the 53-year-old Lander man guilty of the three charges after a weeklong trial in November. Barnes was acquitted of a felony charge for aggravated vehicular homicide and misdemeanor exercise of due care by drivers.

No probation

Barnes could be considered for a work release program at the discretion of the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, Young said Thursday.

"I considered probation very carefully more than once," Young told Barnes. "But I can't get myself in (a) place where I think it's appropriate in this case."

Young said he is nearing 10 years on the bench and has practiced law for many years.

"I've seen a lot," he said to the nearly 30 people attending the Jan. 31 sentencing hearing.

He said a judge's view of the courtroom is great because he can observe more than others do. He recalled seeing the victim's mother during the trial, and the testimony from the bus driver that he will never forget.

"I'm not just a judge -- I'm a father, I'm a grandfather," Young said, adding that part of him resists putting himself in the victim's family's shoes.

Young said he also witnessed Barnes's family at trial and the defendant himself, whom he called "stoic and hard to read." Regardless, Young said he could tell Barnes was remorseful.

"It's just a horrible set of facts," Young said. "It's just a horrible set of alternatives at this point."

According to testimony at trial and charging documents, at about 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2011, Barnes was eastbound on Highway 26 four miles east of Crowheart when he struck and killed the girl as she crossed the roadway to her home after exiting her school bus, which was stopped in the westbound lane.

At trial, defense attorneys argued Barnes did not see the bus's lights as he passed it and collided with the child. Factors discussed included limited visibility due to patchy fog and the bus's bright headlights.

Barnes was not under the influence of a controlled substance at the time of the fatal crash.

Prosecutors called witnesses to the stand who testified about seeing the flashing lights and talked about weather conditions that evening. Data from Barnes's truck indicated that he didn't apply his brakes prior to the collision and that he was traveling 57 miles per hour when he struck the girl.

'My favorite sister'

"MaKayla was a beautiful person," Brendan Sperry said about his older stepsister. "Mr. Barnes took away my favorite sister."

The boy was among half a dozen supporters of both the victim and Barnes who spoke at the hearing.

Brendan said his sister died a few days after his birthday.

"It seemed like the worst birthday present," he said.

Daniel Sperry, who was among the first on scene the night his stepdaughter was killed, said his family is taking steps to rebuild.

"Because of Mr. Barnes, we will never see MaKayla graduate high school, get married, have a baby," Sperry said.

He said while most families spent Christmas Eve 2011 attending candlelight dinners, he was writing a eulogy.

"Mr. Barnes has not taken responsibility for his actions," Sperry told the court.

He noted research showing the hundreds of people who disregard a stopped school bus with flashing lights.

"The death of an 11-year-old cannot be ignored, and the punishment should fit the crime," he added.

Have mercy

An emotional Tammie Havorka pleaded with Young to show mercy on Barnes, her brother. Havorka said her family knows about heartbreak, as Barnes's 18-year-old daughter was killed in an October 2003 car crash.

"A part of Dean died that day," Havorka said.

Nearly eight years to the day later, a motorist struck and killed Barnes's 17-year-old nephew who was walking home in Texas. And in 2004, his dad died on Barnes's birthday.

Havorka recalled Barnes spending a day at the crash site near Crowheart cleaning up debris so it wouldn't be a constant reminder for the girl's family.

"I don't know what's worse -- the nights he can't sleep or the nights he wakes up screaming from nightmares," Havorka said, crying. "My mother needs him to come home, and so do we."

Barnes's older brother, Delvin Barnes, also shared a few words.

"I've never seen him so sad," he said, adding he hasn't seen his brother this way since the loss of Dean Barnes's own daughter.

"I know he feels great, great remorse," Delvin Barnes continued. "He's a good man, and I'm proud he is my brother."

Marlyn Barnes then testified on behalf of her son.

"We have gone through the same thing they've gone through," she said about the victim's family. "It's just an accident, a horrible accident."

She then turned toward friends and family of the victim.

"He does know the sorrow you're going through," Marlyn Barnes said. "We all know it."

Sentencing

Fremont County deputy prosecutor Kathy Kavanagh asked for a year-long sentence to deter others from committing similar offenses.

She admitted to having compassion for Dean Barnes at trial and thinking, "My God, what a terrible thing to live with."

Kavanagh said her feelings changed when Barnes testified and told the "most unbelievable story."

"He blamed an 11-year-old girl for getting killed," Kavanagh argued. "He blamed everybody but himself."

Kavanagh said motorists must stop ignoring the law about stopped bus.

"We need to get the word out there, and we need to deter others," she said.

Defense attorney Devon Petersen asked for probation, saying his client didn't know he was passing a school bus. He called the situation a "horrible, horrible tragic accident."

Petersen said laws and school policies about bus procedures must be reviewed.

"Something needs to change," he said, adding Barnes would like to help with those efforts.

Prior to Young rendering his decision, Barnes stood up and made a few remarks.

"It is a sorrow that goes to my very soul," he said about killing the girl.

He said not an hour goes by that he doesn't think about that night.

"I have lost a child to tragedy and know the pain," Barnes said.

Before taking his seat, he turned toward the girl's family and said he prays for them that they will one day find peace.

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