Tears from grief-wracked loved ones and the defendant flowed in a Minneapolis courtroom Friday before a harsher-than-required nine-year sentence was given to a 25-year-old Coon Rapids man who drove while extremely drunk and fatally rammed a teenager's car at a Brooklyn Park red light.
Michael J. Vanwagner was traveling more than 60 miles per hour last summer when he slammed into 16-year-old Jason McCarthy's stopped vehicle, causing both cars to thrust vertically from the force that ultimately killed the teen. Vanwagner's blood alcohol content was 0.293 percent, more than triple the legal limit.
A few days later, after sobering up and leaving the hospital, Vanwagner posted a photo on Facebook of the mangled vehicle he had been driving. He wrote atop the posting, "That's her front end after I got done with her lol" and added a "smiley face."
Nearly four dozen friends and family members filled the Hennepin County courtroom's gallery and spilled over into the jury seats for the hearing. Most of the eight relatives and friends who spoke recalled an energetic, helpful teenager who played in a band and occasionally donned a Sasquatch outfit on skiing and sledding trips.
Tara McCarthy, Jason's mother, cradled her head in her hands and sobbed for much of the hearing. "The thought and reality of living without my sweet boy is pure hell," she said. "Please help us."
Some in the gallery held back tears and drew deep breaths awaiting the hearing. Others clutched photos of the teenager who was an honors student at Champlin Park High School and ran cross-country for the Rebels before the crash at Hwy. 252 and 73rd Avenue. He was driving home from getting his bushy strawberry-blond hair cut.
"I was lucky enough to see him [the night before]," said Jason's aunt, Teri McCarthy, recalling him saying, " 'Look at my hair,' and it was frizzed way out."
A "danger to society"
As for Vanwagner, who remained hunched over at the defense table as he wiped tears from his face, he was referred to as a "danger to society" who deserved the maximum sentence of 10 years to prevent him from inflicting similar anguish on another family. On that July 22 afternoon, Vanwagner had hit another vehicle earlier, back up the road. He had no insurance and was driving on a revoked license.
Vanwagner fought back mild sobs and explained in court that at the time he didn't know his Facebook post was associated with his killing someone.
"I want you, the family, to know that I don't think this is a joke," Vanwagner said.
His attorneys argued that their client has encountered a lifetime of difficulties. His father left him when he was a year old, and he was physically abused as a child.
The defense also noted that Vanwagner suffers from a language processing affliction, anxiety and a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, among other ailments.
His history of probation and driving violations, his attorneys argued, was due in part from having never received proper treatment.
Vanwagner mentioned having a 2-year-old son, saying, "I can't imagine losing him at such an early age in life because someone was too scared to ask for help."
Before imposing the sentence, Judge Jay Quam told the McCarthy family that listening to them speak about Jason was "one of the hardest things" he's done in his 27-year career.
The length of Vanwagner's term was an upward departure from state guidelines, which called for 6 ½ years.
With the sentence, the eight months already served since his arrest and the standard release from prison while remaining under court supervision, Vanwagner's total incarceration will amount to six years after pleading guilty to criminal vehicular homicide.
Quam told Vanwagner he was trimming one year off the maximum allowable sentence, nodding to Vanwagner not putting the family through the torment of a trial. "The fact that you gave your right to trial up — it's worth something," Quam said.