GOSHEN — Shortly before he received a 15-year sentence Wednesday, the driver in an August 2017 crash that killed three people told their families they have no reason to forgive him.
Some of them vowed they never would.
Leonard Grosswiler, 43, of Mishawaka, was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by two years in a community corrections program and three years on probation. His wife, 41-year-old Penelope Grosswiler, was sentenced to 21/2 years in the Elkhart County Correctional Facility, with six months suspended, for her role in helping cover up the crime.
Leonard Grosswiler had admitted to being the driver in an Aug. 26, 2017 accident in Elkhart that killed three people, including 8-month-old Dolly Smith, 11-year-old Courtney Smith and 22-year-old Shawn Wolcott, and injured Allison Mikel Smith and Bradley Smith, both 22. He also admitted that he tried to conceal the crime by cleaning up his car and hiding it under a tarp, then lying to police.
He was originally charged only for lying to police, but pleaded guilty in October to three Level 5 felony counts of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, leaving the scene of an injury accident as a Level 6 felony and as a misdemeanor, and obstruction of justice, a Level 6 felony. It was the same list of charges originally filed against Penelope Grosswiler, who was initially believed to be the driver.
She instead admitted only to obstruction of justice as a Level 6 felony.
“There are really no words I can say that would make anything better,” Leonard Grosswiler told the court, before turning around and addressing the audience directly. The large gathering in the courtroom included the mother and grandparents of Dolly Smith, Wolcott’s stepfather and Leonard and Penelope Grosswiler’s own parents.
‘The life you owe’
Marquis Thomas Burke said everything was falling into place for her and her daughter, Dolly Smith, and she’d earned everything they had. She had a night to herself and was getting ready for bed when she got the call about the accident.
She raced to the hospital in South Bend as fast as she could. She never thought she’d have to see her daughter in the condition she was in, and could never imagine she’d have to make a decision to take her off life support.
“I hope nobody has to understand what that’s like,” Thomas Burke said. “I hope it’s something nobody ever, ever has to understand.”
James Grosswiler, Leonard’s father, said he knew the weight of being responsible for causing a death, after being in a fatal accident himself at age 17. And if he could trade his own life for the three people his son killed, he would.
“The life you owe the world cannot be repaid,” he said. “You cannot bring it back.”
James Grosswiler asked the judge to temper justice with mercy, and he told the victims’ families that he prays for them every day. He told his son he hopes to live long enough to see him again once he gets out of prison.
Diane Grosswiler, Leonard’s mother, wanted the court to know that he’s a very good man who made some bad choices. His sister, Regina Davis, said he was her hero growing up, and she couldn’t imagine the terror he must have felt that caused him to hide the crime.
“Good people make bad choices,” Davis said. “Sometimes they don’t know what to do to fix it, so they just make another bad choice.”
They all had praise for Penelope Grosswiler as well.
Before her own sentencing, she told the court that saying “I’m sorry” didn’t feel like enough, and that she held herself accountable for not saying anything to police sooner.
‘I watched my granddaughter die’
Yvonnie Thomas, Dolly Smith’s grandmother, said she never realized how easily someone could take her granddaughter away. She also didn’t understand how they could not only cover it up but also continue to do it.
She recalled how she got the call saying that she would be a grandmother. The family was already making college plans for Dolly when she got the other call.
“I watched my granddaughter die in my daughter’s arms,” Thomas said. “This is something that will forever affect us all. I don’t think I could ever forgive them. I don’t know what else to say.”
Keven Wolcott is the adoptive father of Shawn Wolcott. He said Shawn was just getting to know his biological family in the weeks and years before he died.
It’s something Kevan Wolcott struggles to explain to his 13 other adopted children, who frequently ask where Shawn is. Many of them have mental disabilities and have a hard time understanding death, he said.
“The question comes up every day, ‘When is Shawn coming home?’” he said, clenching his fist and bringing it down on the arm of his chair. “I point to the box on the mantle. I say he is home. He will always be home. He’s here.”
Before handing down the two sentences, Circuit Court Judge Michael Christofeno told Leonard Grosswiler he would take him at his word that he was remorseful. But he observed that everything he did before pleading guilty – as well as more recent behavior, including picking up a new charge of driving while intoxicated after being involved in a head-on crash while awaiting sentencing – showed just the opposite
“You tell the court, ‘Oh judge, but I’ve changed,’” Christofeno said. “But in your pre-sentence investigation report, you say you continued to use alcohol, you continued to use marijuana and you started using meth. That is not the path to recovery or showing the court that you’re remorseful.”
The judge told Penelope Grosswiler that while she may not have been the driver, her behavior the night of the accident – including drinking to excess and sharing a bottle of whiskey with her husband as he drove – certainly contributed to the crime. She made it worse by covering everything up.
“You said in your pre-sentence investigation report that you don’t think you deserve mercy,” Christofeno remarked. “I agree.”