A Buffalo man was sentenced to prison Friday for a high-speed, drunken driving crash near the downtown entrance to the Kensington Expressway that killed his friend and injured another.
Wallace Hedgepeth, 20, received one to three years in prison for the June 23 crash that killed Jireh Williams, 21, and injured Antonio Briggs, 20. Hedgepeth had faced a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
Hedgepeth lost control of the vehicle while driving 102 mph on the Elm Street ramp to the Kensington. The vehicle hit a curb, went airborne and crashed into a guardrail on the Tupper Street ramp to the Kensington. It then struck a tree on the other side of Tupper, ejecting Williams from the back seat. Hedgepeth had a blood-alcohol content of 0.14 percent, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08.
“Unfortunately, we see this happen too often,” Erie County Judge Kenneth F. Case said, referring to what he called catastrophic drinking and driving cases.
He noted that he recently sentenced another young man in a drunken driving crash that killed his friend.
“Young people think they are invincible. They think they can drink and drive and nothing like this will happen,” he said.
Although the June 23 crash has devastated three families, the judge said it could have been much worse, noting that the car was going 102 mph after it hit the curb and went airborne.
“It’s mind boggling to me,” he said. “If someone else had been coming down the road, they wouldn’t have had a chance.”
He said it was remarkable that Hedgepeth and his other passenger, who were not wearing seatbelts, survived the crash.
“Why it was Jireh who died, I don’t know,” the judge said, as his voice broke. “Sometimes people earn their way to heaven before the rest of us.”
Case said he had lost sleep for weeks over this case after Hedgepeth pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated. “If this sentence will prevent this from happening again, then Jireh will not have died in vain,” he said.
He urged Hedgepeth to turn this tragedy into a positive, noting that Hedgepeth already has spoken to young people at the Masten Boys and Girls Club about the dangers of drinking and driving and how his actions have devastated others.
“I hope when you get out of prison, you continue to talk to young people” about this issue, he told Hedgepeth. “I think you owe that to your friend.”
He then addressed the more than 40 members of the families of the defendant and the victims who filled the courtroom.
“I hope that God helps you in your healing process,” he said.
Before sentencing Hedgepeth, the judge heard from Williams’ mother and uncle.
Brontie Williams said she was not in the courtroom to seek revenge or punishment for the loss of her son whom she said she misses dearly.
“I don’t want to see another mother go through this,” she said, as she fought back tears. “No one should have to experience losing their son for nothing.”
She said she forgives Hedgepeth for what he did.
“That’s what Jireh would have wanted,” she said.
The victim’s uncle, the Rev. Michael Badger, pastor of the Bethesda World Harvest International Church at Main and East Utica streets, spoke on behalf of the victim’s father.
Noting that too many young men in the community have been lost to early death and incarceration, he said the Williams’ family hopes that Hedgepeth can succeed in life and make his community proud of him.
Hedgepeth’s attorney, Barry Covert, said his client and his family know that he was responsible “for the loss of an incredible person.”
He said Hedgepeth has been undergoing grief counseling. He said he has entered an electrician apprentice program and has been working, despite a broken hip suffered in the crash. He also cited his work at the Masten Boys and Girls Club.
”His life is salvageable,” the attorney said. “He is a good person who made an incredibly bad decision.”
Hedgepeth said he was sorry for what he did that night and for the decisions that devastated his family and the families of the victims.
“I can’t imagine the amount of pain I bestowed on them,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Kelley A. Omel, chief of the DA’s Vehicular Crimes Bureau, asked the judge to sentence Hedgepeth to a prison term for the series of choices he made that night that led to the fatal crash, including drinking in the car on the way to a bar, drinking more at the bar even though he was under 21, and driving at 102 mph while drunk. She called the combination of those choices reckless and deadly.