LARGO — Janet Nusspickel was driving a school bus to Northeast High School when she got the call. It was a police officer who said he needed to talk to her soon and in person.
"I knew then that something was terribly wrong … as only a mother can know," she said in a court hearing Tuesday.
But she had a job to do. She drove to the next stop, and then got a call from her husband. He said their daughter Diana had been killed in a car crash.
Somehow, she finished her route. "I had a bus full of kids I had to get to school," she said.
She then had to go home and tend to her 4-year-old granddaughter. "I had to tell her that Mommy had gone up to heaven."
Nusspickel was recounting the day for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley, who on Tuesday sentenced the drunken driver responsible to 26 years in prison.
Earlier in the hearing, Scott Michael Nicholson pleaded guilty to two counts of DUI-manslaughter and one count of reckless driving with serious bodily injury in connection with the June 2011 crash.
Nicholson, 31, was driving more than 100 mph in a 2007 Chevy Cobalt when he smashed into a 2003 Saturn at 62nd Avenue N and 22nd Street in St. Petersburg. His blood-alcohol level was later recorded as 0.13, but may have been as high as 0.17, more than double the amount at which someone is presumed impaired by Florida law, said Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser.
The crash seriously injured the driver of the car, Devin M. Plant, and killed its two passengers, Diana L. Nusspickel and Charles R. Lutes II. They were both 25.
After pleading guilty, Nicholson turned to the victims' family members and said, "I feel so bad and I would like to first apologize first to each family for their loss."
"There is no excuse I can make," he continued. "It was careless and reckless on my behalf. I'm sorry for the pain I have caused each and every one of you."
Judge Ley said she gave some consideration to Nicholson for sparing the families the ordeal of a trial by pleading guilty. She gave him less than the maximum he could have received under a plea agreement with prosecutors that would have allowed a sentence between 22.7 and 30 years.
Ley's decision came after emotional testimony from parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews and other relatives, some of it in person, some of it in letters read aloud to the court. Some relatives called for forgiveness. Others asked for the maximum punishment. They all spoke of loss and pain.
Charlie Lutes was the oldest in a set of 12 grandchildren, his family members said, and many of his teenage cousins now keenly feel his absence. He died on June 3, the same day one of his cousins was set to graduate from high school.
Lutes' mother, Christina Winstead, said she prepared for Tuesday's hearing by writing a statement. "I checked myself into a hotel, shut off my phone and TV, basically barricaded myself in the room, so I could face what has tried to stay dormant for the past 16 months," she said.
It wasn't easy "to relive the most devastating moment of my life."
During her testimony Tuesday, she said that on her son's last night, he had said, "I'll be home in a little while." In the courtroom, she told the judge, "I just didn't understand at that time that 'home' meant his heavenly home."
Plant, the driver of the car that Nicholson smashed into, drew chuckles of recognition when he remembered how Lutes liked to bring over food his mother had cooked whenever they gathered for a football game. He talked about how smart Diana was and how she was working hard in college.
"I miss them so much," he said.
Near the end of the hearing, after Nicholson apologized, defense attorney Kevin Hayslett addressed the victims' families and urged them all to remind their children and people around them of the dangers of drinking and driving. He also mentioned that Nicholson wasn't the only one drinking on the night of the accident, Plant had alcohol in his bloodstream, although not enough for him to be considered intoxicated under the law.