Monday, February 11, 2008

Hulsey gets six years in state prison


Heather Lea Hulsey was sentenced yesterday to six years and four months in state prison for the July 2006 hit-and-run death of a 71-year-old Montecito doctor.
Hulsey, 21, sobbed uncontrollably as Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa handed down the sentence and ordered that the woman be taken into custody immediately.

For family and friends of Dr. Ronald Shlensky, who was struck by Hulsey’s SUV on the evening of July 27 while walking his dog on Knapp Drive in Montecito, the sentence provided little consolation to what they told Ochoa has been more than a year-and-a-half full of grieving and pain.
“I am very saddened by all of the events that have happened,” said Lincoln Shlensky, the doctor’s son. “There is no joy in the sentence that Ms. Hulsey received… At the same time I feel justice has been served.”
Hulsey pleaded no contest to two felony charges last December, one for vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol and the other for fleeing the scene of an accident knowing that a person was injured.
Ochoa issued the minimum sentence of 16 months behind bars for the first charge and an additional five years for the second charge. The sentence was handed down despite pleas from Hulsey and her attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mindy Boulet, to limit the defendant’s punishment to probation.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Arnis Tolks said he believed the gravity of the incident and Hulsey’s actions over the past year, which include an arrest for public intoxication, warranted the sentence.
“I felt it was a prison case and I think there was so much deception and a total lack of showing remorse,” Tolks said of Hulsey. “The court couldn’t ignore that.”
Before Ochoa issued his sentence, he heard from Shlensky’s children, his widow and his friends, who painted a picture of a man who dedicated his life to helping others.
“When he was needed, he was always there and ready to offer his skills to any other [person],” Lincoln Shlensky said. “She [Hulsey] let him lie there bleeding. The woman who killed my father acts as a deplorable exemplar of everything my father was against.”
Before Hulsey entered a plea of no contest late last year, she had maintained her innocence, saying she struck Shlensky when she reached down to answer her cell phone. Hulsey entered a plea of not guilty two different times, once when she was arrested and charged with eight crimes in August 2006, and again after a Superior Court judge found, at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, that sufficient evidence existed to order a trial.
Members of the Shlensky family told Ochoa yesterday they likely could have found a way to forgive Hulsey had she stopped her vehicle, called 911 and made an attempt to save his life.
Instead, Lincoln Shlensky and his sister, Sheba Laser Lux, noted that Hulsey continued driving, denied hitting their father and attempted to cover up the dents Shlensky’s body made as it was crushed by the 2004 Toyota 4Runner.
Shlensky’s other daughter, Aviva Goldfarb, spoke of her father’s efforts to help others throughout his life and emphasized that no member of her family was present when her father died.
“We will never have an opportunity to say goodbye to our dad,” Goldfarb said. “She [Hulsey] hid from responsibility. Even to this day she has not taken responsibility.”

The Prosecution

Tolks talked Ochoa through the events surrounding the incident, which he said began on July 26, when Hulsey went to a party and got so intoxicated she passed out.
By the next afternoon, he said Hulsey was drinking vodka with friends at the pool area of the Montecito Country Club. After more than four hours of drinking, Tolks said she returned to her parent’s home, which was next door to the Shlensky’s, and got in her car and drove away.
She did this, he said, despite a phone call from a friend who had dropped Hulsey off and reportedly told her that she didn’t believe Hulsey should be driving. During the phone conversation, Tolks said Hulsey went quiet for a moment, before telling her friend she thought she had just hit someone. The prosecutor said Hulsey later told the friend not to stop and that she had just hit a ditch.
Tolks said Hulsey's sister discovered Shlensky's bleeding body minutes after the collision occurred. He said the girl checked on Shlensky, who was conscious, then went inside the Hulsey home where her mother called 911. This call was made at 6:01 p.m., Tolks said and phone records show that Hulsey was still on the phone with her friend at 6:02 p.m.
Ochoa called it “ironic” that Hulsey was either reaching down to retrieve her phone or possibly speaking on the phone with someone who was urging her not to drive when she struck Shlensky.
After hitting Shlensky, Tolks said Hulsey drove to her boyfriend’s home in Carpinteria. He said the boyfriend told investigators that she arrived upset and was talking on the phone with her mother, denying she had hit someone.
Hulsey avoided arrest until Aug. 7, 2006. Police recovered her SUV from an auto shop in Ventura, where her father took the vehicle to have the dents caused by the collision repaired.
Aside from her initial denials are what Tolks and members of the Shlensky family called “a record” of drunken behavior that occurred after her arrest and was well documented on various Web sites.
Tolks showed pictures of Hulsey drinking with friends throughout the latter part of 2006 and well into 2007 before her preliminary hearing last March.
But the extent of that drinking surfaced on May 20, 2007, when UC Santa Barbara Police arrested Hulsey for public intoxication.
Tolks said Hulsey was scheduled to appear in court the next day, but Boulet said she was ill. Tolks said the defendant was actually in county jail.
As a result of that arrest, Tolks asked the court to increase Hulsey’s bail to $250,000 and told Ochoa during a June 4 hearing that Hulsey had a “Severe, severe alcohol problem.”
Ochoa agreed, calling Hulsey’s drinking patterns at that time a “justifiable concern” for the community. He then increased her bail and ordered she be taken into custody.
Hulsey was released a month later into the custody of Casa Serena, a residential treatment center.
“There has been no showing of genuine remorse,” Tolks said. “Her actions speak so much louder than her empty words.”

Sober for nine months

After Tolks concluded, Hulsey stood at the podium, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, turned toward the Shlensky family and apologized.
“I know there are no words I can say to take away your pain and anger,” she said. “There isn’t a day I wish I couldn’t go back.”
Hulsey said depression drove her into alcoholism and since Shlensky’s death she has been suicidal.
Hulsey also thanked Ochoa for putting her behind bars last June. While in county jail, she said she enrolled in a rehabilitation program provided by the Sheriff’s Department and got on the path to recovery, which came to a head when she began residing at Casa Serena.
“The day I walked in was the day my life completely changed,” she said, adding that she’s been sober for nine months. Motivated by her counselors at Casa Serena, Hulsey, a former UCSB and Santa Barbara City College cheerleader, said she plans to help others as Shlensky did during his life.
Boulet said Hulsey’s experience with rehabilitation has changed her outlook on how she deals with all of her clients.
“She has taught me about recovery and has taught me that recovery cannot be halfway,” Boulet said. “She knows that she will be in recovery for the rest of her life.”
If granted probation, Boulet told Ochoa that Hulsey would continue living in Casa Serena for another 15 months and would then move to a sober living facility.
Boulet said two kinds of people get locked in prison, the first are people with criminal minds and the second consist of those who cannot successfully complete probation. Hulsey, she said, does not fall into either camp.
“We’re not asking that the court go easy on Ms. Hulsey,” she said. “Let her continue in recovery. We ask your honor not to send Ms. Hulsey to prison today.”

Judge’s ruling

After taking about 10 minutes to deliberate in his chambers, Ochoa emerged just after 4:15 p.m. to issue the sentence.
He said he weighed his decision on a number of a factors defined by California law. One of which was comparing the crime to others of a similar nature.
“This is a more serious crime as compared to others,” Ochoa said, explaining Hulsey’s actions immediately following the incident.
The judge said he took into account the vulnerability of the victim, who was 71 years old and was walking his dog on a street he had lived on for decades.
Ochoa also said he viewed Hulsey’s drinking patterns in the months following her initial arrest as a “pattern of conduct that would certainly demonstrate a lack of remorse.”
“The defendant is not suitable for probation in this case,” Ochoa said.

Looking forward

Tolks said it is appropriate in such cases to seek restitution and in this case, that amount is well over $1 million. Ochoa scheduled a hearing for March 3 to discuss all matters dealing with restitution.
With Hulsey behind bars, members of the Shlensky family said the void left in their lives by the absence of their father isn’t something that will heal easily.
“My dad will never be able to meet my children nor will they be able to meet him,” Lincoln Shlensky said. “We have only our memories of him as consolation of his untimely loss.”
Shlensky’s wife, Evely Shlensky, said everywhere she looks she sees “memories of our and us.”
“I felt profoundly appreciated by my husband,” she said, adding that each time she looks up the street where he was struck by Hulsey’s SUV, she feels darkness. “I hope it will pass and the sweet memories will be my focus.”

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