CROWN POINT — Donnell Howard Jr. told a criminal court judge Thursday he panicked when he fled police in February in his SUV, eventually causing a crash that killed a 13-year-old Whiting girl.
His excuse did not move Judge Diane Boswell, who sentenced him to 15 years in prison for two felony counts of resisting law enforcement.
Howard, 32, appeared at his sentencing hearing Thursday in Lake Criminal Court wearing black-and-gray jail garb.
He had been jailed almost a year for causing the police pursuit Feb. 15 that killed Julianna Chambers and injured the girl's grandmother, Theresa Paramo.
The pursuit started that afternoon after Howard's girlfriend, Jessica S. Pichon, stole a case of beer from Strack and Van Til, 4725 Indianapolis Blvd., in East Chicago.
The couple fled the parking lot in their vehicle and led police on a high-speed chase that ended in the crash that killed Chambers at Columbia Avenue and Gostlin Street in Hammond.
Howard pleaded guilty last month to two counts of resisting law enforcement. Pichon pleaded guilty to the same offenses in November.
Gabriela Vasquez is Chambers' aunt and Paramo's daughter. She was appointed the legal guardian for Paramo after she was injured in the crash.
She said in a letter to the court read Thursday by Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Jatkiewicz her mother was battling cancer for five years before the crash. Because of her injuries, Paramo could not receive treatment for cancer for several months, which has caused malignant growths to reappear in her liver.
She said Chambers was born premature, and fought against bullying at her school. Her death has deeply impacted her brother, who turned 13 three days after the crash.
“I told myself this was not real,” Vasquez said. “Why my niece?”
She asked the judge for the maximum sentence — 22 years in prison.
Jatkiewicz said the crash was any family's “worst nightmare.” She said Howard and Pichon had protective orders against each other and should not have even been in the vehicle together.
Defense attorney Adrian Guzman said Howard got his GED in 2007. He did automotive work, attended church regularly and was last convicted of a felony 10 years ago. He said there was nothing in his story to suggest he was a violent person.
Howard, who spoke in an unusually soft and high voice, told the judge he did not know how to express his regret to the family.
He claimed he did not know why police were chasing him on Feb. 15, and kept driving despite lights and sirens because of a “fight-or-flight” panic.
“I was scared, and strange things happen when you're scared,” he said.
Pichon, 28, was also scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for two counts of resisting law enforcement. The sentencing hearing was rescheduled for Wednesday.