CROWN POINT — A Roselawn man avoided prison time Thursday for killing two men when he crashed his powerboat into a breakwall in 2016 while driving at more than six times the speed limit.
Tony J. Gibson, 39, pleaded guilty in March to two counts of reckless homicide in connection with the deaths of Richard Wade, 68, of Hammond, and Timothy Dunlap, 62, of Lynwood, in July 2016 on Lake Michigan.
Family and friends of Gibson, Dunlap and Wade, a retired Hammond firefighter and one of the first members of the Lake County sheriff's marine unit, packed Judge Samuel Cappas' courtroom for the sentencing hearing.
Cappas said many of the cases he sees involve harm intentionally inflicted on others. Gibson's case was different, he said.
"No punishment can take the pain away," he said. "Neither side will be happy with my decision."
He sentenced Gibson to 1.5 years on each count, to be served consecutively, but suspended prison time.
Cappas instead ordered Gibson to serve 1.5 years in the Lake County Community Corrections work-release program, followed by 1.5 years on probation.
'He was a blessing'
Cappas pronounced the sentence at the end of an emotional hearing.
Wade's wife, Karen, said a part of her died the day she lost her husband.
"He was a blessing to every person he touched," she said. "He loved life, and he lived it to the fullest."
Her grief was so overwhelming, she eventually lost her job. She was robbed of the joy she shared with her husband while boating, she said.
Karen Wade said she was hurt by Gibson's decision to hire an attorney and refuse to talk with police shortly after the crash, followed by the many continuances in the case. She questioned why Gibson didn't report the crash for hours after it happened.
Dunlap's wife, Cheryl, said this year would have marked her 45th wedding anniversary. She had known her husband since grade school.
They faced many challenges together, including the loss of their home in a fire and a grim prognosis at birth for a granddaughter who is now 17 years old. But Cheryl Dunlap was never scared, she said.
"He was always there to hold me up, and I was there to hold him up," she said. "I was robbed. I don't know where I'm going or what to do."
Defense attorney Paul Stracci said it's not uncommon to request continuances in serious cases. Now that the criminal case is concluded, Gibson can fully participate in Karen Wade's civil lawsuit against him, he said.
'Only God knows the answer'
Gibson apologized, saying the crash has changed him forever.
"I don't know why I survived and not Tim and Rich," he said. "Only God knows the answer."
Gibson was found walking barefoot in wet clothing along the east side of the ArcelorMittal peninsula in East Chicago early July 23, 2016, Stracci said.
He said he was explaining the crash because Gibson has long wanted to talk about what happened.
Gibson's memory was spotty, Stracci said, but video showed him leaving the Calumet Harbor Yacht Club in Chicago late July 22, 2016, with Wade and Dunlap, his friends, en route for the Indiana Harbor Yacht Club.
One of the navigation lights on the ArcelorMittal peninsula was out, and Gibson mistakenly believed he needed to turn right before it was time, Stracci said. His 42-foot Fountain powerboat hit a breakwall, and Gibson was thrown overboard.
Stracci said when Gibson surfaced, he was unable to locate Wade and Dunlap and swam for about two hours before reaching shore. He was picked up by ArcelorMittal security and taken to a guard shack, where he told a U.S. Coast Guard officer he had been traveling at about 69 mph before the crash.
The speed limit through the area was 10 mph, Lake County Supervisory Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Jatkiewicz said.
Gibson's blood alcohol content was between 0.05 and 0.06 hours after the crash, she said.
"He failed to ensure the safety of his passengers because he recklessly sped through that waterway at night," she said.
Judge says leniency appropriate
Jatkiewicz said she read Gibson's many letters of support and conceded he, too, is a "good guy."
"The difference is Mr. Gibson's family can embrace him," she said. The victims' families will never get their loved ones back, she said.
Under his plea agreement, Gibson faced a maximum of four years in prison on each count. Many of the letter writers said Gibson runs a repair shop in Roselawn, and the community would not be the same without him.
Jatkiewicz asked Cappas to sentence Gibson to four years in prison, followed by two years in work release and two years on probation. She also asked Cappas to order his driver's license suspended for two years.
Cappas declined to suspend Gibson's driver's license. He said leniency was appropriate and noted that if the navigation light had not been out, the night could have ended very differently for the three men.
Cappas ordered Gibson to pay $24,390 in restitution to Wade's family for burial costs and $9,755 to Dunlap's family.