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'I'm Sorry,' Driver says of Brain-Injured Ex-Trooper

January 24, 2005

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'I'm Sorry,' Driver says of Brain-Injured Ex-Trooper

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By John Ellement and Kathleen Burge, Boston.com

Gets 2 1/2 years in 2003 crash

BROCKTON -- Former state trooper Ellen E. Engelhardt struggled to breathe yesterday, as a tearful William P. Senne haltingly told a judge: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I spend so much time thinking that there is nothing in this world I'd rather do than go back in time and fix it."

Senne, a 20-year-old Boston College student, admitted that he was driving drunk in July 2003 when he slammed his car into Engelhardt's parked cruiser at nearly 100 miles an hour. The former sailing instructor from Wayland was sentenced to 2 years in the Plymouth County House of Correction, significantly less than the eight to 10 years that prosecutors requested.

The courtroom was emotion-filled, as Engelhardt's former colleagues, many of them in State Police uniform, gazed at the woman they knew as an active runner and pioneering female trooper.

Engelhardt is severely brain-injured, cannot talk, and lives in a Middleborough rehabilitation center. She was brought to court in her wheelchair.

"This is Ellen Engelhardt," her longtime boyfriend, State Police Sergeant Richard Teves, told the judge. "My best friend."

After Teves spoke, he kissed Engelhardt softly on the head.

Senne had spent the night before the crash at a Wayland party and was driving his father's Volvo to a regatta on the Cape early the next morning. Engelhardt was working the overnight shift and had parked on the breakdown lane of Route 25 in Wareham. Her cruiser's blue lights were flashing, as she investigated an earlier hit-and-run collision.

When Senne struck Engelhardt's Crown Victoria, he propelled the cruiser forward at a rate of 50 miles per hour, said Frank Middleton, assistant Plymouth district attorney.

"There is nothing accidental about what happened to Trooper Engelhardt," Middleton told Superior Court Judge Suzanne V. DelVecchio in arguing yesterday for the longer sentence. "He [Senne] chose to drive like a jerk."

Senne was 18 when the crash occurred, and he had three speeding citations on his record. Also in 2003, he was arrested by Wayland police for having an unopened 30-pack of beer in his car while underage. He had no other criminal record until yesterday's guilty plea to charges of operating under the influence to cause serious bodily injury and of driving to endanger, Middleton said.

As she sentenced Senne to 2 years in jail, DelVecchio said she was overwhelmed by Engelhardt's bravery to make it to court. But the judge also cited the numerous letters she had received in praise of Senne's character, from his friends, teachers, and relatives. DelVecchio also sentenced Senne to five years of probation and to perform 500 hours of community service at facilities for those with head or brain injuries.

Under state law, Senne faced a minimum of six months in the house of correction to a maximum of 10 years in state prison for causing serious bodily injury while driving drunk, Middleton said in court. The second charge carried a maximum of two years in the house of correction, he said.

Middleton said tests done nearly four hours after the crash showed Senne had a .051 blood alcohol level. He said government specialists would have testified that at the time of the crash, Senne's blood alcohol level ranged from .08 to .123. The legal limit is .08.

Senne's lawyer, Paul V. Kelly, told reporters that Senne chose to plead guilty instead of forcing a trial to allow the "healing process" for both families to begin. He said Senne was not a monster and that he was not drunk at the time of the crash, though he had drunk beer at a barbecue the night before. Instead, Kelly said, Senne fell asleep at the wheel as a result of having worked the day before, attending the barbecue, and then choosing at 5 a.m. to drive to Cape Cod.

"He accepts responsibility for the tragic consequences of his actions," Kelly said. "The only reason he survived the crash is that he was dead asleep at the wheel and was seat-belted into the car. But he is not a monster."

Kelly said Senne will be eligible for parole after serving about half his sentence.

Teves and Engelhardt's daughter, Lora E. Tedeman, offered victim-impact statements to the judge. They did not mention Senne, or express anger, but spoke of the woman they both love. Ellen Engelhardt, they said, loved to run and go to the beach with her dog. She and Tedeman loved to go shopping together.

No one knows how aware Engelhardt is or whether she knew what was happening in the courtroom yesterday.

Engelhardt nearly died after the crash and lingered for months in a coma, breathing only with the help of a respirator. She eventually regained consciousness. But her future is uncertain, Teves told DelVecchio.

"We believe in miracles, but the prognosis is not good," said Teves, who was working the morning of the crash and saw his girlfriend of 10 years being treated in an ambulance. "I waited a lifetime for her."

After the hearing, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said he disagreed with the sentence. "There are no winners," he said. "Everybody loses in this instance."

But neither Teves nor Tedeman said the judge's decision was disappointing, and they did not display anger toward Senne or his family.

"Harboring ill will toward Mr. Senne isn't going to help Ellen get better," Teves said. "The day he walks out of that [prison] facility, she will still be in a facility for the rest of her life."

After yesterday's sentencing, Senne's mother, Bernadette Downey, briefly addressed reporters. "This is an irreconcilable experience. It has changed our family and our extended family and all those who love Billy, forever," she said. "We think about Ellen Engelhardt every day. We pray for her. We understand that's always first."

Her family is committed to bringing "Billy through this, so that something better can come out of this situation," she said. "We are sorry."

When Engelhardt was injured, she had been back at work only two months after recuperating from another crash. In the earlier collision, the trooper was parked on the shoulder of Route 6 in South Yarmouth for a traffic stop when a 22-year-old man who later admitted to driving drunk veered into her cruiser. Engelhardt spent seven months recuperating from head, neck, and thigh injuries.

On behalf of her mother, Tedeman has filed a civil lawsuit in Plymouth Superior Court against Senne and his father, Peter, who owned the car. Lawyers for Engelhardt are demanding $10 million, citing her need for long-term care.

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