WILKES-BARRE — Thomas Walter Letteer Jr. told a judge Thursday that he still feels “terrible” about the 2012 hit-and-run crash in which he fatally struck 5-year-old Kevin Miller, and accepts responsibility for his actions.
Letteer never turned around to face a courtroom packed with the Dallas boy’s sobbing family to say he was sorry.
Instead, before Luzerne County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. handed down a two-to-five-year prison sentence against Letteer, the 24-year-old Plains Township man told the judge Thursday that he was “a good guy” and “I’ve tried my whole life to stay out of trouble,” and that he will spend his time in custody “reading business books and accounting books and trying to get a business going” when he returns to society.
“I’m troubled by what I perceive to be a lack of remorse,” Sklarosky told Letteer, whose expression seemed to change little during a lengthy sentencing hearing that was dominated by tearful, sometimes graphic statements given by the Miller family and their friends, about the circumstances of Kevin’s death and the pain of trying to carry on with their lives in the wake of his loss.
Those statements included a powerful 15-minute address to the court by the boy’s mother, Caroline Miller, who described the horror of seeing her little boy’s broken, naked body in the hospital after the crash, with blood coming out of his ears.
“I see this image every single night,” Miller said.
“I saw you hit my son,” she shouted at Letteer. “You knew you hit him, but you drove even faster.”
Letteer pleaded guilty in March to accidents involving death, a second-degree felony, in connection with the Dec. 21, 2012 crash
Wilkes-Barre city police and Luzerne County detectives alleged Letteer was driving the red 1999 Pontiac Grand Am that struck Kevin as the boy crossed North Street with his parents and two brothers after they left a Christmas party that snowy December night.
Then, investigators and witnesses have said, Letteer drove off without stopping.
An autopsy showed Kevin died from multiple traumatic injuries, according to the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office.
Police began a massive search for a red Pontiac sedan that was recorded on private and city surveillance cameras near the scene. They came across a red 1999 Pontiac Grand Am on Mack Street near Letteer’s home.
Two days after Kevin’s death, on Dec. 23, investigators said they spoke with Letteer at his home. Then, Letteer said he had not been in Wilkes-Barre on Dec. 21, and never goes to Wilkes-Barre, police said.
The same day, according to family testimony on Thursday, the Miller family was saying goodbye to their son.
“We were a happy family, looking forward to celebrating Christmas,” the boy’s grandmother, Frances Miller, told the court. “From now on, Christmas Eve will forever be the day we buried Kevin.”
Letteer allegedly told investigators on Dec. 23 that he drove the Pontiac from a party in West Wyoming directly to his girlfriend’s residence in Pittston Township. He repeated the same statement to investigators on Dec. 31, saying he was not in Wilkes-Barre when the boy was struck.
Police said further investigation contradicted Letteer’s account. Witnesses told investigators Letteer was headed to a bar downtown, and cellphone records revealed the man who said he never goes to Wilkes-Barre was in the area of North Street the night of Dec. 21, when some of his calls were routed through cell towers on the King’s College campus and Public Square.
Assistant District Attorney Alexis Falvello on Thursday produced a witness who testified Letteer had attended a party at his West Wyoming home that night and consumed alcohol while there.
Investigators seized the Pontiac on Jan. 4, 2013, alleging it had a newer front headlight and light damage on its hood. Letteer was then named as a person of interest. That followed alleged statements Letteer’s girlfriend made to a friend about Letteer confessing to hitting and killing someone with the car.
He was arrested on April 4, 2013, roused from bed by police in the early-morning hours and arraigned before District Judge Diana Malast wearing a black T-shirt, torn pajama pants and flip flops.
But Letteer maintained his innocence. Defense attorneys Paul Galante and Allyson Kacmarski sought to have their client’s statements to investigators thrown out, along with alleged evidence recovered from the Pontiac, Facebook postings and cellphone records. They also sought a change of venue.
On Feb. 27, Sklarosky denied those requests. Letteer’s guilty plea came 11 days later.
In addition to Kevin’s mother and grandfather, Thursday’s witnesses for the prosecution included his father, Stephen F. Miller, his older brother, Stephen, other relatives, a priest, and a nun, Sister Mary Helen Nugent, who has counseled Mr. and Mrs. Miller and spoke about the couple’s challenges and sense of loss. Many wore yellow clothing and yellow roses, in memory of Kevin and his favorite color.
But perhaps the most graphic testimony came from Luzerne County Councilman Jim Bobeck, who attended the Christmas party the Millers had been at and who was walking with them when Kevin was struck.
Bobeck described hearing “a revving noise,” seeing headlights and being surprised that the fast-approaching car did not slow down. It did not stop or appear to brake, Bobeck said.
And then Kevin was hit.
“It was a sound like a paper bag being crushed,” Bobeck recalled. “It was a horrible sound.”
Bobeck tried unsuccessfully to chase the car. He soon found Kevin, his eyes still open, and picked up the child.
“You don’t leave a child lying in a ditch,” Bobeck said.
Prior to Letteer’s sentencing, his family released a statement to the media:
“Our family has been devastated beyond belief for over a year now. We are not a heartless family. Our son is not a monster as he was made out to be. He had a very promising, bright future ahead of him.”
“To the Miller family, we would like to express our deepest sympathy to them and to let them know that for the past year as they mourned the loss of their son, we mourned the loss of their son and ours. There are no winners to this terrible tragedy. God bless the Miller family.”
Caroline Miller’s view of Thomas Letteer, and his future prospects, was less flattering.
Pointing out that she is a lawyer and her husband a doctor, Miller said her son would have had the opportunity to get a good education and contribute to society in a high-achieving field, as many members of their family have done.
“Not what this derelict will contribute,” she said of Letteer, blasting the defendant for having been a troubled student from the age of 7. “He was never, and he will never contribute anything positive to society,” Miller said.
Falvello, in her final remarks before sentencing, pointed out that Letteer used the word “I” 18 times in his brief remarks to the court, but never apologized directly to Kevin’s family.
Falvello also took Letteer to task for lying about substance abuse, pointing to test results that showed that he tested positive for marijuana nine times since pleading guilty in March, most recently on Monday, in defiance of the court’s instructions that he was not to use any illicit substances while out on bail awaiting sentencing.
“Frankly, your honor, he thumbed his nose at you,” Falvello said. “I submit to the court that rehabilitation is unlikely for this defendant.”
While Letteer was not charged or sentenced based on what had been done since the plea, Sklarosky noted that “it impugns the veracity of your truthfulness.”
The sentence handed down on Thursday already generated has much comment in local media as to its appropriateness.
The charge Letteer admitted to, accidents involving death, is a second-degree felony. On paper it carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, but District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis explained that because Letteer did not have a prior history, he already was looking at a lesser amount.
In fact, Salavantis said, he could have faced as little as one year in prison. She, Falvello and prosecutor Mary Phillips were pleased with Sklarosky’s sentence, which encompassed aggravating factors such as Kevin’s age, and gave Letteer more time behind bars than he might otherwise have gotten.
But in a press conference after the sentencing, Salavantis and Caroline Miller also spoke about the need to close a legal loophole in state law under which homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence has a three-year mandatory minimum sentence, and leaving the scene of an accident involving death, as in Kevin’s case, only carries a one-year minimum sentence.
“This loophole actually encourages defendants who have killed a human being to take the chance of either getting away or saving two years in prison,” Salavantis said, adding she has been working with state Sen. Lisa Baker and state Rep. Mike Carroll on efforts to rewrite the law.
Letteer, for his part, had been seeking an even less severe punishment, with his lawyers on Thursday unsuccessfully asking for boot camp.
After the judge handed down his ruling and was talking about Letteer’s rights, the defendant could be heard asking his lawyer about appeal options.