A woman with a long list of criminal driving infractions pleaded guilty last week to the most severe one: crashing head-on into a car driven by a Johnson woman two years ago, killing her.
Shelley Stevenson, 29, of Eden pleaded guilty Friday in Lamoille County Superior Court to grossly negligent driving resulting in a fatality, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
The crash Nov. 8, 2017, in which police suspect Stevenson had prescription drugs, cocaine and alcohol in her system, killed Eileen O’Brien, 59, of Johnson.
Stevenson’s guilty plea avoided a trial, something that O’Brien’s sister Maureen is grateful for.
“We are pleased that we actually have a guilty verdict and pleased that it was done without going through a trial,” O’Brien said.
Prosecutors and Stevenson agreed to a contested sentencing, which will likely be held in early February. The prosecution is asking for a minimum of three to five years, up to the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Stevenson’s lawyer, David Sleigh, is likely to argue for the lower end. He said in court Friday that the guilty plea came with the understanding that the state would drop a half-dozen other criminal charges against his client — all of them motor vehicle crimes.
Among them: an Oct. 11, 2017, charge of driving under the influence; an Oct. 22, 2017, charge of providing false information to police about a crash; a July 30, 2019, charge of careless or negligent driving after another crash; and three counts of violating conditions of release after getting caught driving.
A contested sentence is an all-day affair, which allows the victim — or in this case the victim’s family and friends — to tell the judge how the crime affected them.
For Maureen O’Brien, it’s an opportunity to finally stop being silent about the crash that killed her younger sister. She said that, at last count, the family has at least a dozen people who want to speak in court.
“So, I think it’ll make an impact,” O’Brien said. “Good gracious, I hope so. Because we’ve had to be quiet for two years, while it’s been all about Shelley.”
According to affidavits from the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department, Stevenson told a deputy shortly after the Nov. 8, 2017, crash in Johnson that she had been drinking, there were pills in her purse, and she “stupidly passed on a hill” before crashing into O’Brien’s vehicle.
According to court documents, Stevenson refused to give a blood sample, but police obtained a search warrant ordering it. The sample showed levels of alprazolam (known as Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication), and buprenorphine (commonly known as Subutex, used to help with opioid addiction and/or acute pain), and benzoylecgonine, an indicator of cocaine in the blood.
There was also alcohol in her system. Police measured her blood-alcohol level at 0.054 percent at the scene, which is below the 0.08 that’s proof of intoxication.
Just an hour before the fatal crash, three people reported seeing Stevenson at Sterling Market in Johnson, and all described her behavior as odd, with one observing, “I felt like she was on something,” and one saying, “She should not be driving.
One witness even called police with a description of Stevenson’s vehicle, and a sheriff’s deputy reported hearing a radio call about the vehicle before he heard the report of the crash.
Maureen O’Brien said her sister was about to be a grandmother twice over. He daughter and daughter-in-law were each eight months pregnant at the time of the crash; the two boys will turn 2 next month.
“She’s missing out on the grandchild side, which was what she wanted the most,” O’Brien said. “She was clearing out her life, and figuring out how to make it all work so she could spend as much time taking care of her grandchildren.”
She said her sister was someone who took care of people “in a lot of ways,” whether in her job or in volunteer work. She was the family member most likely to bring the rest of the family together for occasions.
“And she was fun. She was funny,” O’Brien said.
Stevenson was quiet throughout Friday’s hearing, answering Judge Nancy Waples’ questions at a barely audible level.
Waples explained all the ramifications of pleading guilty without going through a trial, which waives her right to challenge any evidence the state would have brought, “and typically waives your right to appeal.”
Waples asked Stevenson if she had taken any pills or had any alcohol that might affect her judgment in agreeing to the plea. Stevenson said she had not.
The state’s case is being handled by a special prosecutor, Heather Gray. Lamoille County State’s Attorney Todd Shove said Gray specializes in motor vehicle crash investigations — she’s also prosecuting Colby Costello, a man accused of killing 19-year-old Dexter Thurston in a car crash in Elmore last year.
O’Brien praised Gray and her team, saying “they’ve put a lot of resources into” the case. O’Brien said that the last two years, witnessing “the inner workings of the legal system, has been eye-opening, to say the least.” She said the family is looking forward to it all being over, but it won’t bring her sister back.
“It won’t be closure,” she said. “It’ll be the end of the case.”