A Butte County judge Thursday sentenced a Corning man to 15 years to life in prison in connection with the 2010 incident that killed Caltrans lead worker Gary Smith while assisting CHP with another fatal crash on Highway 99.
Russell Hodge, 47, wept as he Judge James Reilly read him the harsh sentence for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated with priors for the Nov. 14, 2010 incident.
Before the sentence, emotions ran high as friends and family of Smith as they read victim-impact statements to the judge. At one point, Gary Smith's widow Sue Stryker-Smith stood with Smith's co-worker Jeff Hemstalk, an orange traffic cone and an urn holding Smith's ashes to illustrate the tragic loss.
Hemstalk also donned all of the high-visibility gear her husband was wearing as he was working on the job the night he died. Smith told the court that Hodge's claim that he mistook the Caltrans work for a traffic cone just didn't add up. She finished her statement with the tragic fact that Hodge's drunken driving had reduced her large husband to the ashes that were in the urn in front of her in court.
Gary Smith had been manning a detour checkpoint on Highway 99 at Cana Highway to prevent drivers from entering the scene of an earlier fatal DUI north on 99. Prosecutors say Hodge, with a .20 BA and three prior DUIs, blew through the checkpoint at approximately 45-60 mph, striking and killing Gary Smith, who was due to retire from Caltrans in a few months. Hodge eventually stopped at the other DUI scene less than a mile miles up the road and told CHP that he thought he had hit a road cone.
Prosecutor Lynda Hunt, in her final argument to the judge, noted that a number of letters attached to the court sentencing report came from friends of Russell Hodge who talked about the tragic "accident." Hunt said that Hodge's "accident" , because of his past DUIs and high BA, was no more of an "accident" than someone who fired a gun through a window of a crowded room and then later claimed it was an "accident" that the bullet struck someone.
Judge Reilley sentenced a weeping Hodge to the maximum term of 15 years to life for the crime of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated with Priors. Hodge also waived all credit for the time he has served in Butte County Jail while awaiting sentencing from November of 2010.