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Victims' family lashes out at ex-friend
To his wife, mother and others, Ronald Dean Sterrett was an outgoing, generous man until he caused a fatal traffic accident that left him in anguish.
To the Bodesheim family, Sterrett is a former friend who killed their parents in the crash.
After gut-wrenching testimony from both sides Wednesday, Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas R. Dobson sentenced the Wolf Creek Township man to 6 months to 18 months in Mercer County Jail with work release. The judge denied defense attorney Michael Zunder's request for house arrest.
As he was about to face trial in November, Sterrett pleaded no contest to a single count of involuntary manslaughter. Charges of vehicular homicide were dropped.
State police in Mercer said on the night of July 22, 2000, Sterrett's pickup ran a stop sign on Millbrook Road and collided with a car driven by James L. Bodesheim, 81, of Worth Township.
Bodesheim's 70-year-old wife Blanche was pronounced dead at the accident scene. Her husband died later in UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, police said.
Sterrett said he was driving through heavy fog and had not driven on Millbrook Road for seven years.
"I've known Ron for 15 years," said Stephen Polkabla, a son of Blanche Bodesheim and stepson of James Bodesheim. "He lives in the neighborhood. He (is) saying he didn't know the stop sign was there. I don't believe that.
"He should have to sit and think about it for a long time," Polkabla said.
"I hate you," another son, Michael Polkabla, told Sterrett. "You took a life away from me because you thought a stop sign was something to look at as you go by. You don't deserve jail, but you deserve to go to hell and burn for what you did."
A daughter, Catherine Saylor, said Sterrett should accept responsibility for what he did. She said she is trying to teach her 16-year-old son to respect the law and pay attention to road signs.
"My mother took care of my children when I was at work. Now, I don't have her," Mrs. Saylor said. Mrs. Bodesheim also was a retired teacher and a Worth Township secretary.
The sons wiped away tears as they spoke.
So did Sterrett.
Sterrett recalled Stephen Polkabla introducing himself in 1992. Sterrett described him as "a good, honest man" and that made the Bodesheims' deaths more tragic.
Sterrett, on crutches, was hospitalized for an ankle injury after the accident. While in United Community Hospital, Pine Township, he learned of Mrs. Bodesheim's death. "When I learned she had died, I wanted to die right then and there," Sterrett said.
"He wished he could trade places with them," said Mark Burin of Girard, Ohio, with whom Sterrett trained horses.
Burin was among a half-dozen friends and family members who said Sterrett sank into remorse after the fatal crash.
"I have witnessed him struggling with this accident," said Sterett's wife, Debra. "He doesn't fall asleep at night and when he does, he has nightmares. We don't talk much."
Zunder said any jail sentence would be nothing compared to Sterrett's emotional pain. "His sentence has been psychological," the defense lawyer said.
Zunder recalled what Sterrett said when he accepted the plea bargain against his lawyer's recommendation: "If we go to trial and there is an acquittal, there would be no closure for the Bodesheim family because justice was not done."
"I am so sorry from deep in my heart," Sterrett said to the Bodesheim family.
"God forgives him, and He doesn't want him to burn in hell," Burin said.
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