Rhode Island man pleads no contest in triple fatal highway crash
Survivors of three women who were killed by a drunken wrong-way driver in December 2012 objected strenuously during a plea hearing Thursday in New London Superior Court to the 14-year prison sentence that Frank J. Sundstrom will receive next month.
Sundstrom, 53, of Warwick, R.I., pleaded no contest to three counts of second-degree manslaughter with a vehicle and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Family members of Marjorie Minor, 90, of North Haven; her daughter Barbara Prato, 63, of East Haven; and their friend, Tamara Nolin, 71, of Branford said they wanted Sundstrom to serve 31 years, the maximum sentence allowed for the charges.
“I have to wonder to myself, how many people have to die in Connecticut before they get 30 years?” said Nolin’s niece, Tara Barros. “In my mind it’s insulting as a victim to be told this is the best we can hope for.”
She said she wondered if he would have received a longer sentence if he had “randomly put three bullets into a gun and shot into a crowd and killed three people.”
Arrested in August 2013 following a state police investigation, Sundstrom has been held in lieu of $750,000 while his attorneys, Felicia A. Manni-Paquette of Pawtucket, R.I., and John C. Manni of Johnston, R.I., negotiated with Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Jean Kanabis. Kanabis had offered an 18-year sentence, but Judge Kevin P. McMahon indicated that he would accept a plea bargain involving a 14-year prison term.
Sundstrom, who was critically injured in the crash and is still on crutches, hung his head during Thursday’s proceeding.
Nolin was driving her friends home from one of the local casinos when their Nissan Maxima was struck head on by Sundstrom’s Oldsmobile Alero as he drove north in the southbound lane of Interstate 95 in Old Lyme about three-tenths of a mile south of Exit 70. The crash occurred almost instantaneously as state police began receiving 911 calls about a wrong-way driver.
Melissa Prato, daughter of Barbara Prato and granddaughter of Minor, said she was on the phone with the women when the crash occurred. She said she would never forget the “heart wrenching” sound of the three women getting killed. She said she always told her mother she loved her before they said goodbye and could do neither on the night of the crash. Like the other survivors, she listed life events the victims are missing because of Sundstrom’s actions, including her daughter’s eighth-grade graduation on Thursday night.
After listening to several of the survivors voice their objections to the plea deal, McMahon told them he thought that in light of all the circumstances it was a fair sentence.
“Is this me saying what their lives were worth? Not at all,” he said. “I’m just trying to put a number that’s appropriate.”
Kanabis, the prosecutor, said the deal was based on the circumstances of the case and the outcomes of other manslaughter cases, adding that no two cases are exactly alike.
“We cannot possibly quantify the grief or loss of the families,” she said.
Sundstrom’s blood alcohol level was .197 about 1 ½ hours after the 9:06 p.m. crash and .14 after 3 ½ hours, according to Kanabis.
Under the plea deal, McMahon will hand down what is known as a split sentence on Aug. 22: 30 years, suspended after 14 years, followed by five years of probation. He is expected to impose several conditions of probation, including that Sundstrom not drink or use drugs, use an ignition interlock device if he is allowed to drive, undergo random drug and alcohol testing, serve a total of 300 hours of community service and attend sentencing hearings in other manslaughter cases. He said he would consider ordering Sundstrom to wear a bracelet that will detect if he is drinking but rejected the victims’ request that Sundstrom have a curfew.
The Department of Motor Vehicles in Sundstrom’s home state will determine whether Sundstrom will be able to drive.
Court-based victim advocate LeeAnn Vertefuille and Michelle Lettieri from Mothers Against Drunk Driving are working with the families, who said they plan to address the court again on Sundstrom’s sentencing day.