Family remembers Hibbing man, as impaired driver sentenced

Thomas Gilley has battled addiction nearly his entire life, a defense attorney said as the 27-year-old was sent to prison Thursday for a fatal crash in November.


After Franklin Dean Rice was killed by an impaired driver last November, his family was forced to livestream his funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions, and more than 800 people tuned in.

Last month, given the chance for a more appropriate in-person gathering, businesses and individuals chipped in more than $7,000 to stage a tribute race at Rice's beloved Hibbing Raceway, drawing a crowd of more than 1,200 and allowing organizers to distribute roughly 20 bicycles and 40 helmets to kids.

"We not only lost a son, a father, a brother, a nephew, an uncle, a cousin, a friend and a co-worker," his sister, Heather Jeffers, said Thursday, "but we all lost the future we thought we had with him in it."

Rice's family fondly remembered "Frankie" at the sentencing of Thomas Michael Gilley, the Marble man who admitted to being under the influence of drugs when he crashed head-on into the victim's oncoming car Nov. 12. Rice was just weeks shy of his 40th birthday.

Gilley, 27, who pleaded guilty in June to a count of criminal vehicular homicide, declined to address the court before Judge Rachel Sullivan sentenced him to a guideline term of just under six years in prison.


Thomas Michael Gilley.jpg
Thomas Michael Gilley

Authorities said Gilley admitted to dozing off at the wheel before striking Rice's Chevrolet Cobalt at about 9:45 p.m. along County Highway 5, east of Chisholm and near the entrance to Hibbing Taconite. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.

Gilley was identified as the driver of the Ford Escape that had struck Rice's car. He was bleeding from the mouth and nose as a result of his airbag deploying, and police said he "had bloodshot, watery eyes and kept nodding off" as he spoke with an officer.

PREVIOUSLY: Charges: Marble man impaired in fatal Hibbing crash Police said they seized syringes, a pipe, marijuana and other drug paraphernalia after the Nov. 12 head-on collision.
Court documents said that Gilley told officers he was "not sure (what happened), but that when he opened his eyes, a car was headed right at him." He said he wasn't sure if he had fallen asleep, but authorities reported he was "falling asleep during mid-conversation and could not keep his eyes fully open" while speaking with officers at the scene.

Inside Gilley's car, officers recovered a crumpled-up piece of aluminum foil, a broken syringe and a spoon with an off-white residue that were described as being indicative of drug use.

Gilley declined medical treatment at the scene, but was transported to Fairview Range Medical Center for treatment. In his pants, an officer found a hypodermic syringe, a black pipe, a cotton swab, clear plastic bags and a cylinder containing marijuana, according to court documents.

Rice left behind a daughter, who is now 15. He had worked at Minnesota Diversified Industries since 2005, considering it "home," family members said. In his free time, he could usually be found in "his spot" at the race track, and also loved fishing and deer hunting.


Six family members and friends of Rice submitted victim-impact statements before the hearing, which was conducted via Zoom to accommodate out-of-state residents. St. Louis County victim-witness coordinator James Vukad read several aloud.

The victim's mother, Lori Potter, wrote that her "life has been turned upside down since that day."

"Frankie was looking forward to teaching his daughter how to drive this summer," Potter said. "He can't do that, as his life was taken from us. He won't see her go to prom, graduate, go to college or someday be able to see her children. It's not fair. Frankie had a kind heart; he saw the good in everyone. But I do believe Frankie wouldn't forgive Tom Gilley, as he has shown no remorse."

PREVIOUSLY: Marble man pleads guilty in Hibbing motorist's death Police said Thomas Gilley was falling asleep mid-conversation and that they found suspected drugs and paraphernalia in his car after the Nov. 12 death of Franklin Rice on County Highway 5.
Jeffers, the lone representative to directly address the court, said she needed to take an eight-week leave from her 21-year job as a registered nurse at the Hibbing hospital and still faces the trauma, as she works in the emergency room.

Family members also spoke of frustration with the court process and sentencing guidelines.

St. Louis County prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich pushed for the 68-month term, the maximum available under the terms of a plea agreement, saying the family has " suffered unfathomable pain and anguish" and that any lesser sentence would "diminish the defendant's crime."

Defense attorney James Perunovich asked the court to consider a sentence as low as 58 months based on his client's past, which he said included drinking with his father as young as age 6 and using heroin on a daily basis by 15. He said Gilley's criminal history is limited to low-level offenses related almost entirely to addiction and mental health struggles.

"Mr. Gilley is trying to survive in the world," Perunovich said. "If there's anything good that can come out of Frankie's passing, hopefully it's that it can change somebody else's life."


Sullivan imposed the 68-month sentence, acknowledging the family's pain and echoing the defense attorney's hopes that Gilley can maintain sobriety and "return to our community in a positive and contributing manner."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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