By John S. Hausman September 24, 2013 at 7:11 PM, MLive.com, Muskegon
MUSKEGON, MI – Eric “Rick” VanDam of Muskegon wishes the driver who cost VanDam his leg and two of his friends would have looked him in the eye when they sat a few feet apart Tuesday in a Wisconsin courtroom packed with bikers and supporters.
But VanDam says he’s reasonably satisfied with a plea agreement that will put Clinton Lovelace behind bars for decades.
Clinton Lovelace MLive file photo Lovelace, 26, entered pleas Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 24, that convicted him of two counts of homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle and three counts of reckless injury/endangering safety. The pleas were entered in Fond du Lac, Wisc.
Lovelace will be sentenced Feb. 6. Under a plea agreement, his maximum sentence could be more than 30 years, while the minimum will likely be capped at 20 years, although the judge will make the final sentencing decision.
Lovelace now stands convicted of plowing his car into a group of Muskegon-area motorcyclists May 31, 2012, near Fond du Lac. The crash killed two Muskegon residents and injured eight others.
Muskegon Motorcycle Gang riders Daniel Winsemius and Douglas Yonkers died in the crash. VanDam lost a leg and suffered other medical complications. He now uses a wheelchair.
Authorities say the riders were struck when a car driven by Lovelace crossed the center line and barreled head-on into the group of 12 motorcycles on U.S. 151. The riders had taken the Lake Express ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee and were heading north to the Mackinac Bridge as part of their annual Bridge Run.
VanDam and six other Muskegonites traveled to Wisconsin for Lovelace’s Tuesday plea hearing.
They had plenty of company. “The courtroom was jampacked,” VanDam said in a telephone interview after the plea hearing. “All the ABATE guys and Harley guys were there. It was standing room only.” As with every court hearing for Lovelace, dozens of members of Wisconsin ABATE, a motorcycle rights and safety organization, filled the courtroom to show support for their Michigan comrades.
VanDam said he’s all right with the plea agreement, although it included the dismissal of several counts.
VanDam sat in the front row of the courtroom directly behind the prosecutor. He estimates he was about 12 feet from Lovelace.
“He was in the room already when we went in there,” VanDam said. “I wanted the guy to look at me. I wanted to make eye contact with him.
“It was a little different being that close to him. … It was just kind of surreal seeing the kid. I just wanted to see him kind of put it on a personal level.”
VanDam said he and other victims and family members met with the prosecutor afterward. He and others plan to speak at Lovelace’s sentencing, something the prosecutor encouraged.
Lovelace entered no-contest pleas to the vehicular homicide counts. No-contest pleas aren’t an admission of guilt, but result in conviction and are treated like guilty pleas at sentencing. They’re allowed under several circumstances, including when civil lawsuits are possible and when, as in Lovelace’s case, the defendant claims not to remember the crime.
He entered what are called “Alford pleas” to the three reckless endangerment counts. Those are guilty pleas where the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence but admits that enough evidence exists that a prosecutor likely could convince a jury to convict.
Lovelace originally was charged with two counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, three counts of injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle, five counts of second-degree recklessly endangering safety, two counts of bail jumping and one count of possession of a controlled substance.
Blood drawn more than three hours after the crash showed the presence of the narcotic painkiller Oxycodone in Lovelace’s system, and syringes and narcotics were found in Lovelace’s pockets at the hospital where he was treated afterward.
But difficulties in determining how much of the drug was in Lovelace’s system at the time of the crash presented potential problems for the prosecution at trial, contributing to the plea agreement.
VanDam isn’t disappointed with the way things turned out, and he noted that the judge could still impose a longer sentence.
“I’m glad we came,” he said. “And, you know, even if it is 20 years, that doesn’t bring anybody back, but it’s a long time for a kid his age.”