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Man pleads guilty to vehicular homicide; Wrong-way drunken-driving crash on Kensington killed two men in January 2011

As the first to be convicted in Erie County of aggravated vehicular homicide, Matthew Ruckdaschel faces a harsher sentence than earlier drunken drivers who left carnage in their wakes.

To start with, Ruckdaschel's guilty plea Monday to killing two motorists when he drove the wrong way on the inbound Kensington Expressway means he must serve prison time.

"Aggravated vehicular homicide carries a mandatory state prison term," said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

Before the fatal DWI crash law was enacted in 2009, a prison term for offenders was common, but not required, Sedita said.

Ruckdaschel, 25, of Getzville, faces a minimum prison sentence of one to three years and a maximum term of 8 1/3 to 25 years when sentenced Aug. 13.

That offers a wide sentencing range for Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka, who did not say in the courtroom Monday how long a prison term he is inclined to give Ruckdaschel.

Whether Ruckdaschel goes to prison longer than past drunken drivers who caused roadway deaths will depend on the leniency or severity of the judge's decision.

Still, the felony crime now carries "a harsher minimum sentence and a harsher maximum sentence," Sedita said.

Before the new law, prosecutors often pressed vehicular manslaughter or regular manslaughter charges in cases involving roadway deaths.

With those charges, "you could still go to prison for a long time, but the sentencing was non-mandatory," Sedita said.

Sedita provided new details about the Jan. 22, 2011, fiery crash that killed Orlando "Eric" Anderson, 37, a rental agent from Buffalo and the father of three children, and Thomas Johnson, 42, a carpenter from Cleveland who had five children.

Ruckdaschel was driving 78 mph in the wrong lane of the Kensington Expressway, between East Utica and Best streets.

A blood draw in Erie County Medical Center, where Ruckdaschel was taken after the head-on collision, showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal threshold for drunken driving. Marijuana also was detected, Sedita said.

"This defendant was not only drunk and on drugs, he was speeding going in the wrong direction on the Kensington Expressway," Sedita said. "That puts fear in the heart of every motorist. You're obeying the rules of traffic, and all of a sudden this drunk driver is bearing down at you at 78 mph going the wrong way. There's little you can do to avoid a crash."

Monday, Ruckdaschel admitted to driving his 2005 Ford F-150 pickup recklessly, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, in the wrong lane of the Kensington Expressway at about 4:45 a.m., when he crashed head-on into a westbound Jeep Grand Cherokee. The crash killed both occupants of the SUV.

Ruckdaschel sat in a wheelchair as he pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide, the highest charge he faced.

During his plea, Ruckdaschel, a standout for the Williamsville North High School hockey team in 2004, spoke softly and could barely be heard at times as he answered questions from Pietruszka.

"No, they do not, your honor," Ruckdaschel replied after the judge asked him if his prescribed medication affected his ability to enter a plea.

Sedita credited Kelley A. Omel, chief of the District Attorney's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, for building a strong case.

All of Ruckdaschel's sentencing possibilities remain open, Sedita said, but the district attorney declined to comment further about a prospective sentence.

"Generally speaking, when a defendant pleads guilty as charged and acknowledges his guilt [before a trial], the court will take that into consideration in fashioning a more lenient sentence," Sedita said. "That's because the defendant has saved the family of the victim the trauma of reliving the criminal incident."

Family members of the victims declined to comment after Monday's court proceeding.

"It's up to the judge," defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said after the hearing. "We'll do our best to persuade the judge to impose a sentence that's fair and reasonable."

Ruckdaschel was hospitalized for about six months after the crash and has undergone "eight or nine operations" over the past year, including some complex ones for traumatic injuries he suffered, Daniels said.

Ruckdaschel, who is free on bail, will likely undergo further surgery.

He remains under the care of several physicians, including a pain management specialist, Daniels said.

"He's doing his best, Judge," Daniels said.