Family members of two motorists who were killed by a drunken, wrong-way driver reacted angrily and tearfully Monday when an Erie County judge refused their request to sentence the convicted driver to the maximum prison term.
Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka sentenced Matthew Ruckdaschel to 3½ to 10½ years in prison.
As the first person to be convicted in Erie County of aggravated vehicular homicide, Ruckdaschel had faced a harsher sentence than earlier drunken drivers who left carnage in their wakes.
Ruckdaschel, 26, of Getzville, had faced a minimum prison sentence of one to three years and a maximum term of 8 1/3 to 25 years after pleading guilty in April to killing two men when he drove the wrong way on the inbound Kensington Expressway.
Last month, Anthony Thompson, the first person to be sentenced in Erie County for aggravated vehicular homicide, was sentenced by a different judge to five to 15 years in prison for a crash last year that killed one of his passengers, severely and permanently injured an off-duty Buffalo police officer and injured two others.
The case against Thompson had more victims, and Thompson was not injured in the crash.
Ruckdaschel, who sat in a wheelchair during his sentencing, was hospitalized for six months after the crash and has undergone 10 operations, including some complex ones at hospitals in Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo for traumatic injuries he suffered.
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said of Ruckdaschel: “He pleaded guilty to the highest count in the indictment. I prosecuted him to the fullest extent of the law. I couldn’t have convicted him of anything higher.”
As to the difference in Thompson’s and Ruckdaschel’s sentences, Sedita said, “My office handled both matters the same way.”
Ruckdaschel admitted to driving his 2005 Ford F-150 pickup recklessly, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, in the wrong lane of the Kensington Expressway at about 4:45 a.m. Jan. 22, 2011, when he crashed head-on into a westbound Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Ruckdaschel’s fiery crash killed Orlando “Eric” Anderson, 37, a rental agent from Buffalo and the father of three children, and Thomas Johnson, 42, a carpenter from Cleveland who had five children.
Ruckdaschel was driving 78 mph in the wrong direction on the Kensington, between East Utica and Best streets. A blood draw in Erie County Medical Center, where Ruckdaschel was taken after the head-on collision, showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal threshold for drunken driving. Marijuana also was detected, prosecutors said.
“I made the worst decision of my life that night,” Ruckdaschel told the judge during the hearing.
He asked for forgiveness from the victims’ families.
“I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me for what I have done,” he said. “I’m prepared to face justice for what I have done.”
Several family members abruptly left the courtroom, shouting, “What?” and “No! No!” after the judge announced the sentence but before he ended the proceeding.
About two dozen friends and family members of the two victims attended the sentencing, slightly more than the number who came to court in a show of support for Ruckdaschel.
Anderson’s and Johnson’s family members and friends were visibly angry and shaken as they left the courtroom but did not speak to reporters. Ruckdaschel’s supporters left the courtroom quietly, also without speaking to reporters.
Christine Anderson, the mother of Orlando Anderson, cried after the proceeding as she waited for an elevator outside the courtroom.
During the sentencing, she urged Pietruszka to impose the stiffest punishment.
Her son’s life was cut short “all due to the stupidity and immaturity of Matthew Ruckdaschel,” she said in her victim-impact statement.
“You left us with nothing but pain and grief,” she told Ruckdaschel. “I know you wish you could take back that day. But you can’t.”
She talked of how her son’s death will impact his three children.
“Now those three beautiful children must face life without the love and guidance of their father,” she said.
“These two wonderful men, they didn’t deserve to go this way,” she added.
Charlotte Simms, the sister of Johnson, said Ruckdaschel made his choice by drinking and driving.
“Matthew was reckless and didn’t think about anyone else but himself,” she said. “Judge, you need to give him the maximum time allowed.”
Defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said the physical pain suffered by Ruckdaschel as a result of his injuries in the crash are a “daily reminder of what happened.”
“He’s in constant pain, and it’s not going to go away,” Daniels said.
The Getzville man, once a star hockey player at Williamsville North High School, served three years in the U.S. Army.
Ruckdaschel sat in the wheelchair for the entire proceeding and remained in it as he was taken into custody after the proceeding.
“He can barely sit up in that wheelchair very long,” Daniels told the judge. “He can’t walk more than 50 feet.”
Daniels said his client does not remember the crash. “He just can’t remember any of the details,” Daniels said.
But the tragic effect of his actions will stay with him.
“It eats at my soul every waking moment,” according to a Ruckdaschel statement read by his lawyer.