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Driver sent to prison for fatal crash near Duluth

Austin Darrell Hilden

Angela Smith came to court Thursday with a collection of items belonging to her son, Axton Dylan Whitfield, who was killed last year in a car crash.

The clean, white Air Jordan sneakers he was wearing when he died. The new phone he had worked hard to purchase. His wallet, still containing the cash he'll never get to spend. A lock of his hair. The hospital bracelet from when he was born.

Smith brought about as much as she could carry to the courthouse, spreading the items across a table and explaining the significance of each. It's hard to let go of anything, she told a judge.

"I don't quite know how to explain that feeling when you walk into your house and one of your kids is not there," Smith said. "And he's not coming back. His room is exactly as he left it. I think I hear the door open. I think I hear him saying 'Mom.' "

Smith was one of six family members who spoke at a heart-wrenching sentencing hearing that spanned nearly two hours before a crowded courtroom in State District Court in Duluth.

Austin Darrell Hilden, 19, of Solway Township, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for the drunken Memorial Day crash that killed Whitfield and injured three other passengers.

Hilden in December admitted that he was driving at nearly twice the legal limit after the group spent the night at a party in the Cotton area. He fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his car into a ditch near the intersection of Canosia and Arrowhead roads just before 4 a.m. on May 29.

Hilden faced a presumptive prison sentence under state sentencing guidelines, with Assistant St. Louis County attorney Rebekka Stumme seeking a 58-month term. But defense attorneys Mikkel Long and David Keegan pushed for a departure, arguing that probation would be appropriate in the case.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Dale Harris said he "agonized" over his options.

"I can honestly say this is the most difficult sentencing decision I've had to make in eight years as a judge," he said. "That's because it's personal. My oldest son is 19 years old. When I saw the newspaper report of this crash, my first thought was, 'Please don't let that be anyone I know.' As I look out at the gallery, I could see myself sitting where any of you are."

Whitfield was living in Proctor and was attending the Adult Learning Center with the dream of working as a video game designer. He was a talented athlete, excelling at football and basketball, his family said.

His mother, grandfather and four siblings all spoke of what they frequently described as a "nightmare" that won't end. Whitfield would have turned 20 last Thanksgiving Day.

"I can't describe how special he was to our family," brother Aston Whitfield said. "This has caused a hole in the heart and soul of everyone who knew him. It has caused a pain in my family that will never be cured, no matter how much time passes."

Other family members spoke of Whitfield's nieces and nephews growing up without ever getting to know him.

"I'm heartbroken. In shock. In a state of disbelief, misery, resentment," brother Aldon Smith said. "Those are just a few emotions I feel. Happiness was taken away from me, along with laughs and life. Outside of photographs, I'll never get to see my brother again."

Whitfield's grandfather, Terrence Smith, described Whitfield as a "good kid." Nine months later, he said the death still reverberates through five generations of the family.

"I miss him very much," he said. "I think I always will. I just hope that the person who caused all this will realize what his actions have caused."

The family encouraged the judge to impose a strong sentence on Hilden, who pleaded guilty to both a criminal vehicular homicide charge as well a count of criminal vehicular operation — acknowledging that other victims also were seriously injured.

The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office reported that Hilden's car was found upside down in a ditch. Whitfield was located about 10 yards away and pronounced dead.

Also injured were 20-year-old Colin Ganem, who suffered multiple fractured vertebrae and required major surgery; 20-year-old Dallas Vrooman, who had a large laceration to his face; and 19-year-old Terrance Wenzel, who suffered a shoulder injury.

Vrooman submitted a letter to the court in support of Hilden's request for probation, saying he did not blame the defendant and did not think incarceration would be appropriate.

"I don't want to lose another one of my friends," he wrote. "Losing Dylan was a tragic event that shouldn't have happened and I don't want to lose two friends over one night of being dumb."

Hilden himself spoke before sentencing, apologizing to Whitfield's family.

"I don't blame you one bit for the way you feel about me," he said. "I'm truly sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused you."

Harris ordered a recess of about 15 minutes to deliberate before coming back with his decision. Saying he understood the pain for Whitfield's family and believed Hilden's remorse to be severe, the judge told the assembled audience he had no "magic words" to correct the situation.

"You want peace, to make things go back to normal," Harris said. "That won't be found in any courtroom. This sentence won't bring Dylan back. It won't take away the pain."