MOUNT VERNON — Judge Richard Wetzel sat on the bench Thursday morning in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas – overlooking a packed courtroom filled with tired eyes, wet handkerchiefs, and 11 months of pent-up pain, anger and heartbreak.

He tried to find the words to explain what he was about to do.

“It’s rarely enough for any sentence to be imposed. It’s often seen as too light, or too harsh, depending on which side you’re here for. …” Wetzel said. “No sentence will be sufficient to right the wrong; to undo what’s been done; to restore you. …

“No sentence in this case is going to be the right one. The best thing I can do is try to get close.”

After reviewing the facts of the case, a pre-sentence investigation, letters from both parties and a 39-page sentencing memorandum prepared by the defense counsel; hearing 30 minutes worth of testimony from both sides in court Thursday; and considering Ohio’s sentencing laws and guidelines; Wetzel made his decision.

He sentenced Vince Arthur, 36, of Mount Vernon, to six years in prison for the actions he admitted to committing on Aug. 1, 2022.

Arthur pleaded guilty May 18 to driving while intoxicated and crossing the center line on State Route 661 that evening, striking a vehicle driven by Samantha O’Rourke.

O’Rourke, 31, of Mount Vernon, died as a result of the head-on collision. Her husband and two of her four children, passengers in the vehicle that night, survived after being sent to Columbus hospitals with critical injuries.

Arthur pleaded guilty to four felony charges related to the incident: one count of aggravated vehicular homicide (a second-degree felony) and three counts of aggravated vehicular assault (all third-degree felonies).

Justin Smith, an attorney with the Mount Vernon-based law firm Zelkowitz, Barry & Cullers, noted in his defense of Arthur on Thursday that over the last five years in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas, defendants convicted of second-degree aggravated vehicular homicide have received between three and seven years in prison.

Wetzel sentenced Arthur to six years in prison on the aggravated vehicular homicide charge. He sentenced Arthur to three years in prison on each aggravated vehicular assault charge, but chose to run those sentences concurrent to the sentence in the top charge, meaning Arthur will serve all four sentences at the same time.

Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville asked for consecutive sentences on all counts, which would have landed Arthur anywhere from five to 23 years in prison.

Wetzel did not impose a fine in the case. He did order Arthur to pay court costs, as well as $2,090.94 to the victim’s family in restitution. A civil suit is also pending.

Arthur received a lifetime license suspension, and will be subject to up to three years of post-release control. He received credit for 86 days of jail time served.

Vince Arthur

Wetzel said he considered the physical, mental and emotional distress caused by Arthur’s actions that night – as well as Arthur’s military experience and prior criminal history – when making his sentencing decision.

“You have to consider the physical and mental injuries suffered by the victims. …” Wetzel said. “The defendant’s criminal history is minimal, but the conduct here was very serious.”

McConville said he understood the rationale behind Wetzel’s decision, although he still wishes he had imposed more prison time.

“I wish that the judge had imposed consecutive sentences because there were multiple victims here, and you heard about the level of harm that was caused here,” McConville said.

“At the same time, I am willing to recognize that Mr. Arthur had a number of mitigating factors, and the judge – you know, it’s his job to come up with a sentence based on all those factors. And while as the prosecutor, I wish the sentence were higher, I can’t say that it’s unfair.”

Chip McConville

Smith, who pushed for minimal prison time so that Arthur could seek counseling and rehabilitation services, said Thursday “I can’t say that I feel like the sentence is fair.”

“This is a really hard case,” said Smith, acknowledging the toll this case has taken on the victims’ family. “I’m a military veteran myself. I’ve grown very close to Vince over the last year, while we’ve been working on this.

“There’s a lot going on with him, with combat-related PTSD. There’s a lot of things that people in the court didn’t get to see, and the judge made reference to that, in regards to my sentencing memorandum. There’s a lot of trauma going on.”

Smith pointed to systemic failures within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – hangups and red tape that he said cost Arthur a chance to receive treatment earlier – when talking about what led to the collision that night.

“I’m glad the sentence was less than seven years because Vince owned up to it immediately. …” said Smith, referencing the range of sentences previously imposed by the court on similar convictions.

“I hope he can get the help he needs. And I hope, you know, come five years and nine months, when he’s got all of his time served, that he does truly get that help.”

‘All of us have to serve a life sentence’

A total of eight people spoke in court Thursday, leading up to Wetzel’s sentencing decision.

Four members of O’Rourke’s family spoke on her behalf, along with McConville.

O’Rourke’s mother, Joyce Lenkei, described the day of the collision and the months that followed. She recalled getting the call “no mother would ever want to get” that evening from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and driving nine hours straight from her Missouri home to see her grandchildren and son-in-law in Columbus hospitals.

Lenkei said she planted a memorial garden in her backyard, as a tribute to O’Rourke. It contains purple lilies, her favorite flowers.

“I miss her each and every day,” Lenkei said of her daughter. “Not a day goes by where I don’t cry.”

Lenkei ended her statement by facing Arthur and asking him a question directly.

“Why didn’t you have a designated driver? Look me in the eye and tell me,” Lenkei said through tears. “I will never forgive you for what you did.”

Sheridan-Carder, O’Rourke’s oldest child, spoke in court Thursday as well.

The 15-year-old described the day of the crash and the toll it has taken on him, both physically and mentally.

He recalled waking up in a hospital bed, with his jaw wired shut and a trachea in his mouth. He was bound by a back brace, unable to move.

“The pain was incomparable,” Sheridan-Carder said.

Sheridan-Carder proceeded to list off the litany of injuries he suffered as a result of the crash – everything from hairline fractures to brain bleeding. He had a broken lower back and a hernia. He suffered a stroke during his accident that affected the left side of his body, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which he said he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.

Sheridan-Carder had to have his aorta replaced. A chunk of his intestines and colon were gone following the accident, and he suffered internal bleeding. He was on life support when Lenkei arrived at the hospital that next morning.

“I had to learn how to walk, talk and function again,” Sheridan-Carder said.

Sheridan-Carder had to have seven surgeries as a result of the collision, Lenkei said. He had to relearn how to brush his teeth, eat and dress himself. And he has continued to rehab his injuries and receive treatment in the months since.

“But I got back up,” Sheridan Carder said in court Thursday, facing Arthur while he spoke. “I’m not going to let you ruin anything else in my life.”

O’Rourke’s husband, Levi, spoke during Arthur’s guilty plea hearing May 18. He spoke Thursday as well.

He said Samantha’s last words were, “What the hell?” And then “everything went black after that.”

He noted that Samantha was expecting to get a call about a promotion the night she was killed. This promotion would have put all of her children through college, he said.

Now, Levi said, all the family can do is think about what could have been.

“All of us have to serve a life sentence. …” he said. “We never get to get out of prison.”

Samantha O’Rourke’s sister, Laura Sheridan-Horn, was the last family member to speak Thursday.

Sheridan-Horn described her sister as a caring individual who was committed to her family.

“She meant so much to so many people,” Sheridan-Horn said.

She said her brother was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 18. She had one question: When does it end?

“I know your intent was not this,” Sheridan-Horn said to Arthur. “Use this for good.”

‘It feels like a nightmare … with no waking up’

Arthur spoke Thursday for the first time during the trial process.

“My actions on Aug. 1, 2022 will haunt me for the rest of my life,” said Arthur, his hands shaking as tears streamed down his cheeks. “It consumes me, thinking about this family’s pain. It feels like a nightmare … with no waking up. I’m so, so sorry.”

Arthur had written his thoughts on a piece of paper. When he couldn’t hold himself together any longer, Noel Alden, another attorney with Zelkowitz, Barry & Cullers, picked up where he left off.

“Every hour of every day, I want to tell you how sorry I am, but I know that carries little weight. …” he read. “I have hurt and scarred so many people because of my actions that day.”

Arthur said he would commit the rest of his life to serving God.

Smith reminded the court Thursday of Arthur’s military background and prior criminal history.

He served 12 years in active combat with the U.S. Army, with deployments to Iraq and Liberia. He was clinically diagnosed with PTSD while on-duty (according to Smith, seven of the 12 members of Arthur’s unit have committed suicide since returning from action).

Arthur was convicted on a DUI charge in Kentucky in 2017, after which Smith said he completed all court-ordered rehabilitation and continued to seek treatment on his own. His record had been clean since, Smith said.

Smith noted Arthur’s desire to rehabilitate, both before and after the collision. Arthur sought out counseling at the Dayton VA after bonding out of jail last fall, Smith noted, despite not having a court order to do so. He said his client plans to seek further treatment once he is out of prison.

“Vince is an honorable man who made a mistake. …” Smith told Wetzel. “He is a broken soldier trying to get help.”

Judge Richard Wetzel

Wetzel indicated in his sentencing decision that Arthur’s conduct before and after the collision mattered.

“Prior to this offense, the defendant was a law-abiding citizen,” Wetzel told the court Thursday. “He has shown genuine remorse for his actions.”

While Wetzel said Arthur’s military history is “not an excuse” for his actions, he said it “must be considered as a contributing factor.”

“We are aware in this country that every person who has served in combat in the U.S. military has experienced residual effects (of that service),” Wetzel told the court. “There is documentation in this case of the defendant’s service, and the PTSD he has suffered as a result, and that all has to be taken into account.”

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