Suspended sentence for driver in fatal Mystic accident

Mystic - In February, Alma Trench, a World War II Navy veteran who tutored local elementary school students for the past quarter century, was walking across East Main Street in front of the post office.

As the 88-year-old resident of the Stone Ridge retirement community walked in a crosswalk, she was struck by an 8,500-pound Ford Excursion SUV driven by a Colchester woman making a turn from Willow Street.

The impact tore Trench's aorta from her heart and broke her legs and ribs. She died at the scene.

On Tuesday, the driver of the SUV, Jennifer Mahr-Aitken, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide with a motor vehicle. The mother of three will not serve any prison time as Judge Kevin McMahon gave her a six-month suspended sentence and one year of probation. He also ordered her to perform 96 hours of community service tutoring students in reading in memory of Trench.

Mahr-Aitken had faced a maximum sentence of six months in prison.

Trench's relatives who were in court Tuesday did not oppose the suspended sentence.

"If she was sitting in jail for the next year, it would not make us feel any better," Trench's grandnephew, Erich Nicholas, said after the sentencing.

But the family did urge McMahon to not only have Mahr-Aitken perform community service but revoke her driver's license for a period of time while she is on probation.

Nicholas urged McMahon to "keep this killer off the road" because of the tragedy she caused in the community.

McMahon agreed with the community service but declined to revoke her right to drive. He said Mahr-Aitken, whose marriage is about to end, will need to drive to work to support her three children.

State Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman William Seymour said Tuesday that the agency would suspend Mahr-Aitken's license only if requested to do so by a judge.

"What I see here is genuine regret and remorse for what happened," McMahon said, gesturing to Mahr-Aitken, who cried during her sentencing.

The judge said the incident is proof that bad things happen to good people in a fleeting moment of stupidity. He added that there have been moments when he was behind the wheel and realized, "I can't believe I almost just got myself killed for doing something stupid."

"I'm used to dealing with criminals in here. I'm used to people with evil intentions. But this is not the situation here. Nobody meant for this to happen," he said in his sentencing remarks.

Earlier in the proceeding Mahr-Aitken turned to Trench's nephew and his son, along with friends who lived with Trench at the Stone Ridge retirement community, and told them that a life is a beautiful thing.

"I never wanted this to happen. I'm really sorry," she said.

While family members told McMahon that over the past nine months Mahr-Aitken had never apologized to them, her attorney, Robert Britt, said that was his choice. "She wanted to apologize," he said. "I wouldn't let her because I did not want to taint the court proceedings."

Britt said his client has been unable to come to terms with the fact that she took a life. "She tries every day to be a better person and make peoples' lives better," he said. "That's the only thing she can do."

Prosecutor Michael Kennedy told McMahon that Mahr-Aitken has cooperated with police from the beginning. He said two witnesses told police speed was not a factor in the accident.

Trench, who was known as "Nicky," was a native of Pittsburgh who enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served in the WAVES program from 1944 to 1947, attaining the rank of lieutenant.

She later became a clinical psychologist and practiced for 24 years. She and her late husband moved to Mystic in 1979. She was a volunteer for many local organizations, including the Claude Chester Elementary School literacy program, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, St. Mark's Episcopal Church and the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, working in the hospital gift shop.

Her nephew, Peter Nicholas of Brooklyn, N.Y., said that every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Trench would take a train to New York to spend the holidays with his family. He described his aunt's death in graphic detail to McMahon and asked how Mahr-Aitken could have missed her in the crosswalk.

"Her death is not only a loss for her family and friends but the community she served," he said.

Nicholas said the family does not plan to pursue any civil action against Mahr-Aitken.

"The type of person my aunt was, she would not want that," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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