Saturday, June 9, 2007

Driver in crash that killed 2 gets 35 years

Steven Johnson admits guilt, begs forgiveness
Stephen Hudak
Sentinel Staff Writer

June 9, 2007

TAVARES -- Assailed as a remorseless liar who had steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for what he did, Steven M. Johnson stood up Friday and took the blame for a drunken-driving accident that killed two Orange County women.

"I ask for your forgiveness, please," he begged of Bethany Rivas' and Crystal Fischer's families. "I know what I did was wrong."

Johnson had testified in April that he wasn't the driver. But a jury convicted him of two counts of DUI-manslaughter, siding with prosecutors who used DNA evidence to put him at the wheel and phone records showing he made 13 calls to family and friends immediately after the crash near Groveland -- but none to 911.

Rivas' mother, Sharon, said she has forgiven Johnson for the fatal crash but spoke against leniency for the Orlando man with six previous convictions for driving without a license.

"We all make mistakes," she said. "The difference is that most of us want to learn from our mistakes and not make them again."

Prosecutors said Johnson was drunk and unlicensed March 6, 2005, when he crashed a friend's car, killing Rivas, 19, of Winter Garden and Fischer, 21, of Orlando.

Both were his passengers.

Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson was unswayed by the sudden confession and sentenced Johnson, 30, to 35 years in prison.

Although state sentencing guidelines recommended that Johnson receive between 24 and 41 years in prison, he asked the judge to forgo incarceration. Johnson suggested that the judge sentence him to tell his "story" to youths, who might be dissuaded from driving while impaired.

The families were visibly outraged. Their mouths fell open.

Kevin Fischer, Crystal's father, interrupted the teary appeal, shouting, "You're a liar, Steven," as he left the courtroom.

The judge quickly rejected the suggestion, which he compared to giving "you a ham and sending you home."

The judge also said he was troubled by evidence showing Johnson never called 911 after the crash but placed 13 calls to his mother, his roommate and the Groveland man, who had been host of the party where Johnson spent the evening drinking.

Prosecutors had argued Johnson was hoping to find someone who could pick him up before police and paramedics arrived.

The car crashed into a utility pole on Empire Church Road.

Toxicology reports showed that Johnson and all of his passengers were impaired by alcohol, including the owner of the car, Justin Hunter, 21.

Hunter, Rivas' boyfriend, survived but was critically injured and has no memory of the accident.

The parents and siblings of the women took turns Friday describing their sorrow and loss.

Sharon Rivas said her daughter never hung up the phone without saying, "I love you."

Candy Fischer said she thinks of her daughter whenever she passes a PT Cruiser, the stylish station wagon that her daughter bought with money she earned by working two jobs.

Johnson's family and friends said they understood the pain as they urged the judge to impose a lenient sentence that would let the Orlando man continue to be a father to his son, a preschooler who fidgeted in the hard wooden pew of the courtroom.

But justice called for a long prison term, Kevin Fischer said.

"I was sentenced to life without my daughter," he told the judge.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at or 352-742-5930.

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