Hot Sulphur Springs Shackled and wearing jail-issued clothing, a snowboarder, who just a year ago was an Olympic hopeful training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, pleaded for leniency Friday after making the biggest mistake of his life.
In the end, David "DJ" Torroni Jr., now 21, was sentenced to five years in a Colorado Department of Corrections prison for killing two people and seriously injuring another in a DUI crash on Nov. 21, 2012, near Kremmling.
The crash resulted in the serious injury of Todd Craft and the deaths of his good friends Megan Ritter and Brian Houle. The three were driving to Steamboat to spend Thanksgiving with Ritter's mother, Elaine Houck, and her husband, Jim, who have lived in Steamboat for 12 years.
Torroni was charged with six felonies. Instead of going to trial, he chose to plead guilty to three felonies as part of a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide and one count of vehicular assault. Sentencing was left up to 14th Judicial District Judge Mary Hoak.
"This is a terrible hearing for everyone involved," Hoak said at the hearing held in Hot Sulphur Springs.
Torroni faced a sentence of as many as 60 years in prison. Fourteenth Judicial District Attorney Brett Barkey asked Hoak to impose a 19-year sentence. Torroni's Steamboat attorney, Charles Feldmann, asked for the 261 days of time already served and probation.
The crash happened the day before Thanksgiving, which historically is the first day of skiing at Steamboat Ski Area. The day is called Scholarship Day because the proceeds from discounted lift ticket sales go to the Winter Sports Club. As a Winter Sports Club member who lived in Summit County, Torroni snowboarded that day in Steamboat with teammates and coaches. Before driving back to Summit County, Torroni, who was 20 at the time, consumed marijuana and drank alcohol that allegedly was provided by his Winter Sports Club coach, Luke Kessler, according to a brief filed by the defense. Kessler subsequently was fired by the club, but criminal charges never were filed against him. He could be named in future lawsuits.
At about 6 p.m., Torroni's Ford pickup collided with the Nissan Sentra driven by Houle. The collision occurred on Colorado Highway 9 just outside Kremmling on a curve approaching a bridge that crosses the Colorado River. Ritter, who was in the back seat, and Houle were not wearing their seat belts and died at the scene. Craft, who was sitting in the passenger seat and wearing a seat belt, suffered severe injuries. Prosecutors said Craft still suffers extreme pain.
Witnesses reported Torroni was driving 45 to 60 mph when he failed to negotiate the curve, crossed the center and crashed his truck into the Nissan.
Barkey told the court that despite having a working cellphone, Torroni did not call for help.
"He and his friends gathered their snowboards out of the roadway," Barkey said. "That's what they did first."
Torroni was taken to jail, where he has stayed without posting bond.
Barkey told the court that two hours after the accident, Torroni's blood was drawn and had a blood alcohol content of 0.072 along with 2 nanograms per milliliter of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
About 50 people attended the emotion-filled hearing. Several friends and family members of Torroni and the victims spoke to the court.
Many of the people supporting Torroni had traveled from the East Coast, where he originally is from.
Torroni's father, David Torroni Sr., said there is not a day that goes by that they do not think about the terrible crash, which has changed the lives of so many.
"Our hearts ache for you and this loss," Torroni's father said.
Torroni Jr. sobbed throughout his statement to the court.
"I have never for one second taken this situation lightly," he said. "I really would like to get out and talk to the community to prevent other tragedies from happening. I can't do that from a jail cell."
Torroni said he hoped everyone could forgive him some day, and that it did not seem fair that he survived and Ritter and Houle were killed.
"I'm responsible for those two lives being taken," Torroni said. "I'm the reason Brian will never never see his child grow up, and I'm the reason Megan will not be able to hug her mother on Thanksgiving morning."
Ritter's mother, Houck, asked the judge to hand down the maximum allowable sentence.
"No parent should ever hear that knock on the front door and see an officer and a police chaplain on the front porch to deliver the news that their child will not be arriving the next day for Thanksgiving," Houck said. "Knowing that she will never walk through the door is sickening."
Houck described her daughter as an athlete, who was a four-time letterman in wrestling and went to state. She later took up snowboarding and pursued a career in nursing. Ritter recently moved to Colorado with Houle to pursue a dream of becoming a flight nurse.
Houck talked through her own experiences with the seven stages of grieving.
"Your honor, I hope you can help get us through the last stage of grieving for the two people that were taken from us," Houck said.
Several letters were read, including one from Ritter's brother, Steamboat resident Sean Bish. He addressed parts directly toward Torroni.
"If you think for one moment you have any innocence in this case, I hope you remember these words instead: In my mind, you are little more than a murderer. Any future you had, you no longer deserve."
Jennifer Clouse, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also spoke to the court.
"This was not a car accident," she said. "There was nothing accidental about the choices Mr. Torroni made."
Ohio attorney J.C. Ratliff advocated for Houle. Ratliff said Houle was so proud of the new life he had started in Denver, where he could apply his outgoing personality and expected to make six figures his first year in a sales job. Ratliff also said Houle was looking forward to spending time with his son, who was an all-star basketball player in fourth grade.
"His son is never going to receive his coaching," Ratliff said.
After the sentencing, Feldmann said Torroni was glad to be moving on.
"He had a 60-year prison sentence hanging over his head," Feldmann said.
The District Attorney's Office sent out a press release after the hearing.
"While we appreciate that the court agreed that a prison sentence was appropriate in this case, we are nevertheless deeply disappointed that the length of the sentence was only five years," Barkey stated in the release. "Our community can be assured that our office, together with law enforcement partners in the district, will continue to aggressively prosecute drinking or drugged driving to the full extent of the law."
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com