Woman sentenced to 10 years in prison for deaths of Nevada Union High School students (VIDEO)
LOS BANOS — The mother of Justin Gardner told the nurse not to mince words.
Kim Browning approached hospital staff after learning her 16-year-old son, and his 17-year-old friend Tyler Nielson, had been in a car wreck. A nurse herself, Browning asked for her son’s condition without any comforting words.
What she heard — best case scenario, Gardner would be an organ donor.
“We used to love holidays as a family,” Browning told Merced County Superior Court Judge John Kirihara at Sabrina Distura’s Wednesday sentencing. “No one wants to celebrate anymore.”
Moments later Browning turned to the 22-year-old Distura, speaking directly to her.
“You took your car and you crushed his head in,” Browning said. “You crushed his body. We have to live a life without him.”
Distura, who in November pleaded guilty to two counts of gross vehicular homicide while intoxicated, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors said she’ll likely serve half the time before her release.
The San Jose woman faced a minimum sentence of probation and a maximum of 12 years.
Authorities arrested Distura after the March 25 wreck on Interstate 5 near Los Banos that killed Nielson and Gardner, and left their friend Dawson Fay with a broken hip.
The Nevada Union High School students were traveling to the beach when Distura’s vehicle crossed the median and collided with a car driven by Nielson. Deputy District Attorney Travis Colby said evidence shows Distura set her cruise control and passed out behind the wheel.
“That last time I saw him he was leaving for his trip,” said Franca Nielson, Tyler’s mother. “He gave me a hug and told me he loved me.
“I wonder if he saw it coming,” she added moments later. “Did he know he was about to die?”
Show of support
Over 50 supporters of Gardner and Nielson attended Wednesday’s sentencing. A bailiff told them it was the most people in the courtroom in the building’s two-and-a-half year history.
One by one, several people who knew the two students spoke to the judge about boys regularly described as extraordinary.
Franca Nielson called her son a superstar athlete, well known and with a good future ahead of him. Instead of helping him register for college classes she found herself burying him.
Gardner’s friends and family called him a superb athlete as well, pointing to his success in basketball and football.
Carol Glynn, Gardner’s grandmother, described her grandson as irreplaceable.
“Never will I get to see him play quarterback, which he was so excited about doing,” Glynn said. “I will not be able to see him go to college, get married or have children.
“She has a life,” Glynn said, referring to Distura. “Justin does not.”
Christopher Franklin, Gardner’s uncle, said he owns a PlayStation 4 — a game console for Justin. When he turns it on, an icon representing Gardner appears on the television screen.
That icon and pictures are all he has left, Franklin added.
“Justin’s death still haunts me,” he said. “Is this a dream? Is he still here?”
Brad Hall, Tyler Nielson’s uncle, said he cringes when someone calls the wreck that killed the two boys an “accident.” He said Distura made choices that led to their deaths.
“The alcohol was her ammunition and her car was her weapon,” Hall said.
Brad Del Bon, a Nevada Union coach, said the memory of Nielson and Gardner’s deaths lingers at the high school.
“Whatever sentence comes down, it’s not enough,” he added.
Distura cried through most of the hearing. When given the chance, she spoke to the judge for about two minutes.
“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to correct this, but I will always fail,” Distura said. “Not a day goes by that I do not wish it had been me instead.”
Distura told the judge that before the wreck she took life for granted. She did what she wanted when she wanted. Since her arrest she’s found God.
“I pray for your sons every day,” she said. “I promise they won’t be forgotten.”
Distura’s attorney, Cameron Watt, told the judge he wouldn’t ask for probation. However, he asked for less than the maximum sentence, noting his client has no criminal record, accepted responsibility and opted to plead guilty.
Colby, the prosecutor, asked the judge to consider the strong show of support for the victims and the numerous letters he received from them.
“She gets to live,” Colby said. “That’s not something you can say for those she struck and killed.”
Kirihara then sentenced Distura to two 10-year prison sentences, saying they would run concurrently.
Franca Nielson said she was happy with what she called a double-digit sentence, though she noted Distura will serve only half of it.
“But at least he gave her close to the maximum,” she added. “It could have been a lot worse.”
During the hearing Browning said she’d never drive on Interstate 5 after Wednesday because it’s the highway where her son died. Standing outside of the Los Banos courthouse afterward, Browning called the end of the sentencing a relief.
“It’s never enough,” she said as storm clouds rolled in. “Nothing can ever make it right.”
To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
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