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Drunken driver who killed two in New Port Richey gets 35 years in prison

NEW PORT RICHEY — Shannon Stephen said he waited four years to apologize to the families of two people he killed driving drunk early one morning in March 2006.

The families of Sarah Gleason and Joe Swiech waited too — to see Stephen go to prison.

And on Wednesday night, after two hours of testimony from both sides, Stephen, 38, of Holiday was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

"This is a tragedy for all involved. There is no question," Circuit Judge Shawn Crane said.

Stephen was convicted in May of two counts of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

Gleason and Swiech were walking arm in arm along Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey after the city's annual Chasco Fiesta on March 26, 2006. They had been drinking and decided to walk home. Prosecutors said Stephen also had been drinking but insisted on driving. He struck them in his pickup and sped off.

Swiech, 26, died instantly. Gleason, 24, was taken to a hospital, where she died. They had planned to marry one day.

No one could identify Stephen as the driver when the couple was struck. But prosecutors put on witnesses who said he was drunk and belligerent leaving a bar. The jury also heard from witnesses who said they pulled a staggering, drunken Stephen from the driver's seat of his damaged truck about a mile from where Gleason and Swiech were hit.

Hours after the crash, authorities said, Stephen's blood-alcohol level measured three times the level of presumed impairment.

He went to trial in 2008, but it ended with a deadlocked jury.

Stephen's friends, family and co-workers said he spent the time since the crash working as an insurance adjuster and carrying the gravity of his actions around with him.

"Every single day Shannon and I talk about Joe and Sarah," Stephen's mother, Shelley Stephen, said. "My heart bleeds for you because your children are still gone."

Swiech had worked at a day care center, where the kids called him "Mr. Joe."

His father, Jim, held up a poster-sized card several kids made after his death, bearing messages like, "I remember the first day I came here, you made me feel so welcome," and "Thank you for always helping me."

Gleason, her aunt said, worked since she was a teenager and had just landed a job with Verizon right before she was killed.

The day Sarah was buried, Joanne Gleason testified, "I remember thinking she was supposed to start her career at Verizon."

Stephen faced a maximum of 45 years in prison. His attorney, Kenneth Foote, had asked for five years in prison followed by 20 years of probation and a requirement that he speak to young people about the dangers of drunken driving.

Stephen, who claimed he hasn't had a single drink of alcohol since the crash, said he will always owe a debt to Swiech's and Gleason's families.

"There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about Joe and Sarah and about you. I wish I could relive that day and do things differently," he told the families. "I am so truly sorry."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Drunken driver who killed two in New Port Richey gets 35 years in prison 07/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2010 12:55am]

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