Nearly a year and a half after the car accident that killed two Carlton County employees, Vanessa Brigan — in tears — pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide Tuesday afternoon in Carlton County Court.
The 28-year-old Cloquet woman was charged with two counts of felony criminal vehicular homicide while under the influence of a controlled substance in connection with a crash that killed Zachary M. Gamache, 25, of Esko and Mitchell D. Lingren, 29, of Duluth near Wright on the morning of Oct. 1, 2012, as she was on her way back from a methadone clinic in Brainerd. (Methadone is a synthetic opiod used somewhat controversially in the treatment of heroin or other opiod addictions.)
Brigan’s defense attorney, John Lind, questioned her for the courtroom after Judge Dale O. Harris affirmed that Brigan was choosing to plead guilty of her own free will and understood that she lost her right to a trial or the right to remain silent by accepting the plea deal offered by the Carlton County Attorney’s office.
Lind recreated the timeline of Brigan’s actions leading up to the accident in the fourth floor courtroom, while family members and loved ones of both Lingren and Gamache watched and listened.
“You were driving a vehicle in Carlton County on Highway 210?” Lind asked, and Brigan assented. Next he asked if she had been to the methadone clinic in Brainerd, and if she had a prescription for methadone. Again she said “yes.”
“The first thing you did that would constitute negligence is that you actually took your dose and drove,” he said and Brigan agreed. “In addition, you were doing what you called ‘double dosing’ — not following your prescription, you were double dosing to get high.”
Again Brigan agreed.
“You were driving on Highway 210 under the influence of methadone and you then caused a car accident, you hit another car, and in that car were two other people who then died,” he said. “You understand that because you were driving under the influence and caused the accident, the responsibility is yours.”
“Yes,” Brigan sobbed. Several of the victims’ family members also quietly cried as they listened to Lind’s questions.
The State Patrol report indicated the crash happened at approximately 8:45 a.m. Oct. 1 when the eastbound 1996 Oldsmobile Aurora driven by Brigan crossed the centerline. According to a witness’s report, while he was following Brigan’s vehicle he observed it weave from the fog line back over the centerline and into the path of a Carlton County Highway Department truck. He said the truck, bearing Gamache and Lingren, attempted to avoid a collision by squeezing to the right hand side of the roadway as far as possible, but their truck could not escape to the ditch because the guardrail prevented it.
Brigan’s vehicle then hit the westbound 2004 Ford pickup belonging to the Carlton County Highway Department on its left rear tire. The axle on the Highway Department’s truck broke and the vehicle veered into oncoming traffic. It sideswiped a 2006 Ford F-350 pickup and then hit a gooseneck trailer pulled by the oncoming truck. Gamache and Lingren were ejected from their truck. State Patrol records show their vehicle’s airbags deployed but neither of them was wearing a seatbelt.
After Lind completed his series of questions, assistant Carlton County Attorney Jesse Berglund also questioned Brigan, specifically about a blood draw and test that her attorney had previously argued should be suppressed.
“They brought you to Community Memorial Hospital and you had a blood test that came up positive for methadone,” Berglund said. “You have no reason to doubt that blood test?”
“No,” Brigan replied.
Then it was the judge’s turn.
“You are pleading guilty to two different counts here, one for each person who was killed,” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“We agree that having methadone in your system affected your ability to drive, to safely operate the motor vehicle,” he said and Brigan agreed.
“The court finds sufficient factual basis,” Judge Harris concluded.
Although Brigan likely won’t be sentenced until April 14 at the soonest, under the terms of the plea agreement, she will be sentenced to a total of six years — three for each count instead of the maximum of four — in prison. The terms will be served consecutively, with credit for time already served (18 months or more by the time she is sentenced) coming off only one sentence. Other terms of the plea agreement, including the terms of her parole after prison, had not been settled before Tuesday’s hearing.
Berglund said the County Attorney’s office was satisfied with the plea deal, and so were the victims’ families.
“We met with the families and talked with them and this was the preferred outcome out of multiple options we presented,” Berglund said. “The maximum on the two charges would have been four years on each, served consecutively. “If it had gone to trial, a judge could have sentenced the two four-year sentences to be served concurrently.”
The minimum Brigan could have been sentenced, he said, was 58 months.
Also, by pleading guilty, it means Brigan will be unable to appeal her sentence and legal issues regarding the blood draw and statements she made before she was read her Miranda rights.
“I think that was a big issue for the family in terms of finality,” Berglund said.
No one else spoke in the courtroom Tuesday, but Berglund said the victims’ families and Brigan can choose to address the court at sentencing.