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Minnesota man gets 5 1/2 years in prison for drunken driving crash that killed 3

WILLMAR, Minn. -- A 22-year-old Minnesota man convicted of killing three people in a drunken driving crash last year has been sentenced to just over 5 1/2 years in prison.

WILLMAR, Minn. -- A 22-year-old Minnesota man convicted of killing three people in a drunken driving crash last year has been sentenced to just over 5ยฝ years in prison.

Paul Anthony Wickenhauser, 22, of Cokato, was sentenced to the expected 67 months in prison on three felony charges of criminal vehicular homicide or operation for causing the motor vehicle crash. Wickenhauser had been drinking beer prior to the crash.

The victims represented three generations of a family: 68-year-old Martha Stoffers of Atwater; her 40-year-old daughter-in-law, Michelle Hoffman; and Hoffman's 8-year-old daughter, Julia. They were killed Aug. 17, 2012, near where U.S. Highway 12 intersects with Kandiyohi County Road 127. Michelle Hoffman's 5-year-old son, Jason, also suffered injuries in the fiery crash.

As part of his sentence handed down by District Judge Donald M. Spilseth in Kandiyohi County District Court, Wickenhauser also was ordered to pay $3,000 in fines and also pay restitution, which has not yet been determined in the case.

The three charges of criminal vehicular homicide or operation with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more include one count for each of the three victims.

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Wickenhauser had entered a plea agreement on July 29 to the 67-month sentence and was immediately taken into custody by the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office, which will transport him to prison.

Before the sentence was handed down, family members gave statements. Also read into the court record were statements from the two men who pulled the two Hoffman children from the burning vehicle.

Mike Hoffman, son to Stoffers, husband to Michelle Hoffman and father of Julia Hoffman, told the court that he suffers from pain and heartache every day because he doesn't have his mother to support him in his time of loss; because his wife isn't there to watch their other children grow; and because Wickenhauser took his daughter's entire life that was yet to be lived.

"Taking our precious Julia from us has caused pain that cannot be explained," Hoffman read from his statement. "Our family is incomplete. ... Nothing can pay back what Mr. Wickenhauser has taken from us."

Missy Hoffman, who lost her mother, sister-in-law and niece, told Wickenhauser that his bad choice on that day last August was a fatal mistake that had cost her family so much.

"What is there to say that can make you understand?" she questioned. "You took three generations of women from my family."

Dressed in a white shirt and tie, Wickenhauser faced the victims' family members when it was his turn to make a statement. He apologized just as he did in the plea hearing last week.

"I know I can't apologize enough," he said, with emotion in his voice. "I hope you will be able to find it in your hearts to forgive me."

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Matt Gomez was one of the first people on the scene, according to his statement. He slammed on his brakes to avoid the crashed vehicles and drove through the debris before calling 911 to report the crash. He said the images of the scene are burned into his mind.

"I can see the kids screaming in the vehicle, as it's on fire," he said.

Jose Alvarado also gave a statement, detailing how he checked on both of the front seat passengers, Stoffers and Michelle Hoffman, and found that neither had a pulse. He said he heard Jason Hoffman screaming and pulled him out of the van before going to his sister.

Alvarado said that Julia Hoffman had a pulse and that he worked to get her leg free before pulling her out through a window. He said he made Julia promise that they would get out of the vehicle together.

He learned the next day that the girl had died. "It made me feel sad and that I failed to save her," his statement read.

Alvarado also said that he watched as the fire engulfed the van and the front-seat passengers. "I thank God for putting me there that day because I don't wish for anyone else to have to see that," he said.

As part of the plea agreement, 12 additional felony charges and one misdemeanor were dismissed. During his plea hearing, Wickenhauser said he had five to six beers after work in Cokato and then went home for an hour before going to the Dairy Queen there. He said he then drove westbound on Highway 12 toward his brother's home in Murdock.

According to the State Patrol, Stoffers was driving east in a 2001 Chrysler Town and Country van. Wickenhauser's 2004 Chevrolet Silverado pickup was traveling west and hit the van head-on. During the plea hearing, Wickenhauser said he came to and found that the front of his pickup was smashed and that his airbag had deployed. He recalled seeing flames to the side.

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At the scene of the crash, Wickenhauser admitted to drinking beer and a preliminary breath test showed a blood alcohol content of 0.07 percent. A blood sample was taken at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis, which showed 0.09 percent. The threshold for impaired driving in Minnesota is 0.08 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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