LOCKPORT – A South Dakota man who crashed his car on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, leaving a friend to die, was sentenced Wednesday to three to nine years in prison.
Skyler T. Zephier, 21, of Vermillion, S.D., also faces a wrongful death suit from the family of the victim, Brett W. McKie, 18. It was filed after the sentencing in the name of his grandmother and executor, Louise McKie.
The family’s attorney, Paul Barr, said McKie, the front-seat passenger in the sport utility vehicle driven by Zephier, died of “positional asphyxiation.” That means after the 2007 Ford sport utility vehicle overturned, McKie’s head was trapped against the ceiling of the upside-down vehicle, with his neck bent forward, cutting off his airway.
“He couldn’t free himself,” said Barr, who added he has no damage figure in mind.
Zephier pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault and misdemeanor driving while intoxicated. The sentence imposed by Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas was the maximum recommendation made by Deputy District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner in the March 5 plea bargain.
It was approved by McKie’s family and by the other driver in the wreck, Jason D. Cramer, 38, of Balmer Road, Porter. Cramer suffered a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, a bruised lung and two broken bones near the base of his spine.
Police reported that Zephier was accelerating at more than 45 mph as the SUV was approaching the intersection of Upper Mountain Road and Susie’s Lane about 11 a.m. Sept. 8. Zephier, southbound on Susie’s Lane, broadsided the 2010 Mazda driven by Cramer and owned by his employer, Heritage Christian Center. Zephier faced a yield sign; Cramer had the right of way.
After impact, the SUV overturned, while Cramer’s car was dragged 17 feet from the collision point.
Brenner said McKie’s life might have been saved by timely action, but witnesses said Zephier left the scene.
“It’s such a waste,” Brenner said.
Barr told Zephier in court, “Every person who gets caught says ‘I’m sorry.’ Sometimes they say, ‘I’m responsible.’ What this family wants to hear is some plan to ensure this never happens again.”
Zephier didn’t offer that, but he did apologize to the families of both victims, as well as his own.
“I never meant to cause harm or injury, or cause death,” Zephier said. “If my words have any value, if they mean anything, I’m truly sorry.”
“Having done this to his friend just sucks the life out of him,” defense attorney Dominic Saraceno said. “As soon as I came on board, he took the plea right away … No matter what he gets, he’s going to have structure for the first time in his life.”
Saraceno added, “I’m confident he’s never going to drink and drive again, or use marijuana and drive again.”
Testing several hours after the crash showed Zephier had a blood alcohol content of 0.09 percent, just above the legal threshold for intoxication, and had traces of marijuana in his blood.
The wrongful death lawsuit in State Supreme Court names as defendants Zephier, Cramer, Heritage Christian Center and James Rickard of Upper Mountain Road on the reservation, the reputed owner of the SUV Zephier was driving.
Zephier was visiting the area with his father, an artist attending an art show in Niagara Falls. Barr said McKie was “an acquaintance” of Zephier’s.
“He was out here meeting girls, doing what teenagers do,” Barr said.