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Crash victim, family attend offender's hearing: Man gets probation extension following violation

A mist fell outside the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday as the family of Macy Kujava waited for the medical van to slowly lower her wheelchair to the ground.

Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls Vaughn Gentry walks down a hallway of the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday after his probation hearing involving a crash on County Highway 3 in 2015 that left Macy Kujava with a traumatic brain injury. Video and Gallery
Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls Vaughn Gentry walks down a hallway of the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday after his probation hearing involving a crash on County Highway 3 in 2015 that left Macy Kujava with a traumatic brain injury. Video and Gallery

A mist fell outside the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday as the family of Macy Kujava waited for the medical van to slowly lower her wheelchair to the ground.

Kujava, 25, was transported from the nursing home where she lives to attend a probation hearing for Vaughn C. Gentry, the man responsible for the January 2015 crash that seriously injured Kujava and her daughter, Sophie. This was the first time Kujava would be face to face with Gentry since the crash that traumatically injured her brain, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state.

Once inside the judicial center, the group took the elevator to the second floor, where Kujava's mother, Sue Vanek, wheeled her down the hallway to Courtroom 4. The family-including father Mark Vanek, husband Casey Kujava, aunt Rhonda Anderson and grandmother Kathy Anderson-took seats near the back of the courtroom, where there was room for Kujava's wheelchair.

Also with the family was Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, who sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful bill last session seeking tougher penalties for unlicensed drivers. Gentry's driver's license was suspended at the time of the crash.

Gentry appeared before Crow Wing County Judge Richard A. Zimmerman for a hearing on a failure to pay restitution. Last September, Gentry was convicted of two misdemeanors as a result of the crash and was ordered to pay $4,023.76 in restitution to the victims. Including fees, Gentry was responsible for $4,458.76 in payments. As of Thursday, Gentry remained responsible for a balance of $2,258.76. As part of his sentence, Gentry was also ordered to one year of probation, to serve 90 days in jail-with 60 days stayed-and to execute 240 hours of community service.

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David Hermerding, chief deputy county attorney, told Zimmerman they reached an agreement on the matter. Hermerding asked the judge to extend Gentry's probation by one year, allowing him additional time to pay his restitution in full. Although Gentry has made a payment each month since his sentencing, the $100 monthly payments were not enough to fully pay the thousands in restitution in one year's time. Gentry also made a $1,000 payment last month, after the paperwork was filed with the court to examine the restitution issue further.

Zimmerman agreed to extend Gentry's probation through Sept. 22, 2017, and ordered Gentry to pay the restitution in full by Sept. 15, 2017. He accepted an admission from Gentry for violating his probation.

"I don't know if I can give you any clearer message, but it's something you need to have on the top of your list," Zimmerman told Gentry.

Outside the courtroom, Gentry was visibly emotional. He said he was unaware his payment plan was insufficient, and added he intended to fully pay the restitution before the end of his extended probation period.

"I just feel horrible about everything," Gentry said. "If I could change it, I would."

State law allows for an extension of probation up to two times if a defendant has not yet paid restitution owed by the expiration of the probation period. Candace Prigge, assistant Crow Wing County attorney, said such an extension is a common occurrence. Prigge said she was not commenting specifically on Gentry's case, in which she is not involved, but said generally speaking extending probation offers more accountability for defendants to continue paying restitution.

Sue Vanek said she was pleased with the judge's decision on the matter, ordering Gentry to "meet the terms of the minimal consequences of the action." She said the judge's reaction could help in the pursuit of tougher penalties.

"It's refreshing to see that they are following the law," Vanek said.

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Heintzeman said he intends to pursue legislation once again. The bill would increase the penalty for an unlicensed driver causing great bodily harm to a gross misdemeanor and would apply that same offense level to drivers with three or more violations of driving after suspension or cancellation.

"We would have liked to see it go straight to a felony," Heintzeman said. "But there was some pushback."

Heintzeman said the pushback came from advocates of a movement away from mandatory sentencing guidelines in the state.

Vanek said her goal is to reduce the number of unlicensed drivers on the road by whatever means possible. Those drivers are less likely to carry insurance, she said, posing a bigger risk to other drivers on the road.

"I'd like to see a harsher consequence, so doing the legal thing is a cheaper option," Vanek said.

Vanek said they continue to notice small improvements in Kujava. She's expressed more emotions lately, like laughter, and reacts to some cues. She is still fed through a tube, but her medications are now limited as her overall health has improved.

Vanek said the family will travel to Hennepin County Medical Center next month to see a traumatic brain injury specialist. There, the specialist will make recommendations on the best ways forward for Kujava's rehabilitation, and will complete MRI and CT scans to compare her current brain activity to the activity immediately post-crash.

Sophie endured at least 20 surgeries following a brain injury, liver laceration, fractured humerus with extensive nerve damage and multiple bowel perforations. Now 6 years old, she just started kindergarten and no longer has any medical issues. With the trauma her body has endured, the family said there was always the possibility of further complications.

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"You never know when they could happen," said Kathy Anderson, Kujava's grandmother.

On the judicial center's first floor, Kujava's family waited inside for her ride as the rain fell harder. Kujava's laughter echoed through the vestibule as husband Casey rested against the arm of her wheelchair. Soon, the 25-year-old woman would be slowly loaded into the medical van to return to the nursing home once again.

Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Victim of a January 2015 crash on Crow Wing County Highway 3, Macy Kujava (left) motions to her mom, Sue Vanek, in the lobby of the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday. Kujava was transported to the hearing from Bethany Good Samaritan Center for a probation hearing for Vaughn Gentry, who was responsible for the crash. Video and Gallery
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Victim of a January 2015 crash on Crow Wing County Highway 3, Macy Kujava (left) motions to her mom, Sue Vanek, in the lobby of the Crow Wing County Judicial Center Thursday. Kujava was transported to the hearing from Bethany Good Samaritan Center for a probation hearing for Vaughn Gentry, who was responsible for the crash. Video and Gallery

Related Topics: CRIME
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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