Former Conn College student goes to prison for crash that paralyzed scooter driver

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Former Connecticut College student Sophia Thielman kissed her family members goodbye and began a six-month prison sentence Thursday for a drunken driving crash in New London that paralyzed a scooter operator from the waist down.

Thielman, 21, of Rye Brook, N.Y., was 19 years old and attending Connecticut College on a full scholarship when she drove her car into the back of a scooter driven by 36-year-old Zachary E. Chesebro on Route 32 near Benham Road at 12:18 a.m. Nov. 22, 2016, according to court documents and testimony. He was thrown from the scooter and suffered a spinal injury that has rendered him paraplegic for life, as well as massive head and face injuries, according to prosecutor David J. Smith.

Thielman stopped at the scene, called 911 and provided aid to Chesebro until first responders arrived. Chesebro was taken to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and transferred to Yale-New Haven Hospital due to the severity of his injuries.

"During that time, the victim actually died four times and had to be brought back to life," Smith said.

Thielman had been drinking in a college dormitory, according to a court document. She had beer cans in her car and also had Xanax, which was not prescribed to her, in her system, according to the state. Her blood alcohol content was 0.11 percent. The legal limit for drivers under 21 is 0.02 percent.

She pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs under the age of 21 and second-degree assault, and faced up to 30 months in prison when she stood before Judge Ernest Green Jr. for sentencing Thursday. She stopped attending college after the crash but hopes to return, according to her testimony.

The victim, represented by the Reardon Law Firm, has sued Thielman and Connecticut College, alleging in a civil lawsuit that she "consumed large quantities of alcohol and/or drugs in a dormitory" at the college, which failed to enforce its policies regarding underage drinking and encouraged students to bring alcohol or drugs into dormitories by turning a blind eye.

Attorney John J. Nazzaro of the Reardon law firm said Thielman waived her rights and submitted to a deposition for the lawsuit recently and that the portion of the claim involving Thielman and her mother, who owned the car, is close to resolution with involvement from an insurance company. He said Chesebro, who was driving home from work when his scooter was struck from behind, likely will never walk again or work again but harbors no animosity toward Thielman.

"He's trying to work on daily challenges," Nazzaro said. "He's trying to engage in life."

The prosecutor asked Judge Green to impose the full 30-month sentence.

"We as a society cannot tolerate these actions," he said. "We need to let the public know that if you drink and you drive, you will be punished."

Thielman's attorney, William F. Dow III, asked for a fully suspended prison sentence with strict conditions of probation and said perhaps the most effective way to deter other young people from drinking and driving would be for Thielman and Chesebro to speak to groups together. He said Thielman has accepted full responsibility, attended counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Thielman, crying at times as she read from a lengthy prepared letter, said she was disgusted with who she once was and that her heart breaks daily when she thinks of how she drastically altered Chesebro's life. She said she had been ecstatic when she was accepted to Connecticut College on a full scholarship and hopes to return to the school. She also brought a letter that she asked be delivered to the victim in which she described how mortified she was to see him on the road after the crash and how she "sits up in pain in bed" and screams about the event.

"I ask you to find a place in your heart to forgive my selfish, childish behavior," she wrote.

Judge Green said he considered a number of things as he fashioned the sentence, including the science behind brain formation for young people, the victim's attitude and the understanding that jail is disruptive for people and can be destructive. Addressing the need for deterrence, he said he doesn't know what gets people to make better decisions, though one thing that helps is when something awful, such as this incident, occurs. The judge said Thielman didn't appear to be someone who minimizes responsibility.

"I do think that some incarceration is necessary, given the circumstances and nature of the injuries," Green said. He imposed the sentence of five years, suspended after six months served, followed by three years of probation.  


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