NEW PORT RICHEY — Ronald Gramling, sick with throat cancer and deep in a pit of depression, caused a crash in 2008 that killed a mother of two young children.
He was charged with vehicular homicide in the death of Denise Anne Dennis, 35.
Crippled with guilt, he started abusing the pain medication he was prescribed to combat the effects of his cancer treatments and the injuries he sustained in the crash. He attempted suicide and was arrested for a domestic battery against his wife. In December, he was accused of driving under the influence.
Only then did he enter a residential treatment facility to begin battling his demons. In April, he pleaded no contest in the vehicular homicide case, and on Friday he came to court to learn his sentence.
Gramling, 40, faced up to 15 years in prison. His attorney, Chris Frey, asked the judge to allow him to complete his treatment.
Lloyd Paine, director of the treatment center in Sarasota where Gramling has been living, testified that it took 12 days of detox before Gramling could even begin therapy. He was emaciated from cancer and "in bad shape on prescription medications."
In addition, he had deteriorated mentally because of his guilt about Dennis and leaving her children without a mother.
"He felt that he had abdicated any right to a normal life because he had taken a life," Paine testified.
Still, he has done better than expected, Paine said, faithfully attending counseling and coming to terms with his actions.
Gramling, who was once considered terminally ill but is now free of cancer after more than four years, took the stand and stammered through describing how he feels about what happened.
"I don't think I'll be able to ever live with what I did to the Dennis family," he said.
He thinks of how his own daughter, 11, is best friends with his wife, and how Dennis' daughter was robbed of that. He said he hopes her widower is stronger than he would be and can raise his kids alone.
"It's a horrible thing that I did. I just pray that Mr. Dennis and his family are able to have some kind of peace," he said.
Gramling, who lived in Holiday and owned a trucking company in Port Richey, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.089 on Feb. 1, 2008, when he crashed into Dennis' Kia Sedona. Dennis was about to turn onto King Helie Boulevard when Gramling's Land Rover veered sharply and traveled over the raised concrete median on Little Road, the Florida Highway Patrol said. The two sport utility vehicles hit head-on.
The Dennis family watched from the audience on Friday, but had a representative speak for them. They did not want the maximum prison sentence. They wanted a sentence that showed the compassion Denise Dennis displayed in her life.
They left it up to the judge.
Circuit Judge Mary Handsel told Gramling she understood his remorse and grief, but she was worried about his future actions. His battery and DUI charges showed how low he could get.
"If you don't think you need to go on anymore, you might go out and do something to hurt yourself and end up hurting others," she said.
Gramling told her he planned to spend the rest of his life fighting his addiction with counseling and treatment.
And so the judge gave Gramling a rare break.
She ordered him to complete his in-patient program, and then report to the Pasco County jail for a one-year sentence. After that he'll do two years of out-patient treatment, followed by 10 years of drug offender probation.
He can never drive a car again. He cannot drink any alcohol, and he must attend at least three Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. And in case he trips up again, Handsel imposed a 15-year suspended prison sentence — meaning that's how long he'd sit behind bars if he violates his probation.
Handsel told Gramling he could lessen his own depression by staying in treatment, and he could help other people who share his addiction.
"I am giving you the opportunity to do some good for others," Handsel said. "Take that opportunity and make Mrs. Dennis proud."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mmoorheadtimes.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Ronald Gramling pleaded no contest to a charge of vehicular homicide for a 2008 crash that killed a local woman. A headline in the original version of this story gave an incorrect charge.