Fifteen minutes before a grand jury was scheduled to hear testimony about a Milton man who killed a 14-year-old girl, allegedly while driving drunk, he pleaded guilty to the highest charge against him.
Gavin Staulters, 22, of 1021 Rock City Road, admitted Wednesday morning to a felony charge of second-degree vehicular manslaughter in the death of Kari Liedel, an aspiring singer who would have been a high school freshman this year.
He appeared in Saratoga County Court before Judge Jerry J. Scarano and is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 30 to serve time in prison.
Liedel was killed the evening of July 7 as she and a friend stood on the shoulder of West Milton Road while waiting for another friend. Liedel lived nearby, on Atomic Project Road.
Her 14-year-old friend narrowly missed being struck herself and would have had to testify before the grand jury about watching Liedel die, said Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III.
“She was literally inches away from death,” he said. “Her childhood, or her naivete, has been wiped away forever at that very moment.”
The Saratoga County grand jury was scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and Staulters’ attorney, Frederick Rench, called for a meeting at 9:15 to enter the plea. It happens infrequently that someone pleads guilty to a felony before indictment, Murphy said.
“I suspect that the defendant knew what the blood-alcohol content was and also knew that the testimony about a 14-year-old young girl’s death would be very compelling.”
Murphy said he is not allowed to disclose Staulters’ blood-alcohol content the night of the accident. Rench could not be reached.
After the incident, Staulters also was charged with driving while intoxicated.
Because Staulters pleaded guilty to the highest charge against him, he has a choice of taking an agreed-upon sentence of two to six years in prison or leaving sentencing up to the judge. The judge could give him a lesser sentence — 11⁄3 to four years — or could go higher with 21⁄3 to seven years.
“The risk is it could be higher than the two to six. It also could be lower,” Murphy said. “It’s really a defendant’s dilemma.”
Either way, Staulters will have his driver’s license revoked and be required to install and maintain an alcohol-sensing ignition interlock device on his vehicle for three years after his release from prison.
Murphy said Liedel’s family has been involved in the process and was satisfied with Staulters’ plea and likely prison sentence.
“While we can never fill the void in her parents’ hearts, we are satisfied that the defendant admitted he drove drunk and killed her and that he will have a felony record and go to state prison,” he said.
The stretch of road on which Staulters was driving was straight, with no turns. The pavement was dry and visibility was good at 8:30 p.m., Murphy said.
Neighbors who saw what happened called 911 and ran to the scene.
Liedel was a student at Ballston Spa Central School and was saddened earlier this year by the death of her friend and classmate, Noelle Johnsen, 17, in a car crash Jan. 7 in Providence. The driver of the pickup in which she was riding, Brian Vecchio, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to 11⁄3 years to four years in prison.
Liedel wanted to get a tattoo honoring Johnsen but was too young.
Kari’s mother, Sarah Liedel, has filed a lawsuit against Staulters on behalf of her daughter’s estate. Her civil attorney, Luke Malamood, said Wednesday the family members were “relieved” that Staulters admitted his guilt.
“It was a first step for them on the long road to closure,” he said in a statement. “While the specific details of the lawsuit are a private matter for the family, the ultimate hope is that the story of their tragic loss will serve as a real reminder to those who decide to drink and drive that their actions can have devastating consequences.”