Shane Heisler was ordered not to get behind the wheel of a vehicle just days before he used fentanyl and took off up Union Road in West Seneca. He was so impaired that he drove across three lanes of traffic and crashed head-on into another car, killing one woman and injuring two other people.
The crash occurred at about 1 p.m. on a sunny Saturday, July 16. Heisler’s victims were on their way to a wedding. Eleven days earlier, Heisler had been arrested in Hamburg for driving while impaired.
Heisler, 31, of Amsdell Road in Hamburg, pleaded guilty in November to vehicular manslaughter for causing the death of Barbara M. Guenther, 71, and to vehicular assault for the injuries he inflicted upon Guenther’s sister-in-law, Diane Heiss, and her husband, Ron Heiss. On Tuesday morning, State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang sentenced Heisler to an indefinite term of 3 1/2 to 10 years in prison on the manslaughter charge and 2 1/3 to 7 years for the assault, to run concurrently.
In pronouncing the prison sentence, Wolfgang noted that no time in prison would remedy the suffering of his victims and their family.
“But we can see that he is not out where he can jeopardize other people for a long time,” Wolfgang said.
The Heisses and other members of the family were in court for the sentencing, all wearing purple, Guenther’s favorite color. Two of Diane Heiss’s daughters gave statements to the court. Barbara Kopera described how the horror of the crash exploded onto the family’s special day.
“They were on their way to celebrate a wedding,” Kopera said. “My aunt went out to get her hair done specially, and she had a beautiful new outfit.”
Kopera took a breath, then continued: “You wouldn’t know that, because she was covered in blood. Her hair? Half of it was ripped from her scalp.”
Guenther was riding in the back seat and may not have seen Heisler’s oncoming vehicle. Those in the front seat did, Kopera said.
“My mother said it’s difficult to put into words the sheer terror of knowing there was no way to escape,” Kopera said.
Saying her family had been robbed of a beloved aunt, and of their summer, of any pleasure they would normally have in spending time together, she said, “While the defendant was worried about how much time he would be doing and trying to get a plea bargain, my aunt died.”
The day it happened, news of the crash was kept from the bridal couple and others at the wedding, but two days after the crash, while Guenther was being kept alive by machines in the hospital, the bride and groom were able to visit her, although she never would know it.
Diane Heiss, who had five ribs fractured along with other injuries, was in so much pain in the hospital that she couldn’t visit her sister-in-law’s room in a wheelchair, so staff members arranged to take her there in her bed, so she could say good-bye before they turned off the life support.
Heiss also provided a statement that Kopera read from in court.
First, she said, she thought whoever hit their car must have had a medical emergency, and she was concerned for his well-being. Then she learned the other driver was on drugs. In her statement, she forgave Heisler, and admonished him to use his time in prison to get sober and well.
“Do not take your life for granted. Be a good father, a good son, a good brother. Don’t be a junkie,” she wrote.
Elaine McGrath then described how she and her husband, taking the same route as the Heisses to the wedding, came upon the crash scene.
“It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We were on the way to a wedding, nicely dressed, running a little late when we see the traffic getting backed up,” McGrath said. Then they saw a tangled wreck that resembled her parents’ car.
In panic, she turned to her husband.
“No. No. No. They can’t all be dead,” she remembered saying.
While family members asked the judge to consider a sentence near the maximum, McGrath said there was no sentence that would be “fair.”
“There is absolutely nothing that will make this all right,” she said.
After expressing his own sympathy to the Heiss family, Heisler’s attorney Leonard Krawczyk asked Judge Wolfgang to consider Heisler’s need for substance abuse treatment and other conditions when deciding on a sentence.
He mentioned that Heisler struggled with his addiction and had lost his girlfriend to a heroin overdose earlier in the year.
But, although Krawczyk said that Heisler’s remorse was sincere, Heisler appeared unemotional when he told the judge, “July 16 is a day none of us will forget for one reason or another,” then said he would try to be a better person when he got out of prison.
Assistant District Attorney Robin J. Deubler, who prosecuted the case, said she expects Heisler to serve a significant part of the 10 years before being considered for release. That time also will cover his brief sentence from Hamburg Town Justice Gerald Gorman for his arrest just 11 days before the fatal crash, when he also was driving while impaired by drugs.
“This all could have been avoided had the defendant not driven, if he had just abided by Judge Gorman’s suspension of his license,” Deubler said.