Jail, home confinement for Mattoon man who caused child's death on I-57

Jail, home confinement for Mattoon man who caused child's death on I-57

URBANA — A Mattoon man whose distracted driving last year resulted in the death of a child and serious injury to her grandmother will serve one month behind bars and five months on home confinement as part of his sentence of 30 months of probation.

“I’ve thought long and hard about this case,” said Judge Adam Dill, who a month ago accepted Steven Kruse’s guilty plea to aggravated unlawful use of an electronic communication device.

The 38-year-old Mattoon man admitted that he reached for his phone, which dinged to alert him to a text, then crashed into a small car ahead of him in an Interstate 57 construction zone near Champaign.

The June 8, 2017, crash killed Caitlin Conner, 10, of Camargo. Her grandmother, Debra Conner, 59, of Mattoon, was driving and was seriously injured. Caitlin’s older sister, Lily, 14, was also injured.

“It’s clear to me the Conner family is not happy with probation. And Mr. Kruse has many supporters. This is a good man who made a terrible mistake that happens to be a Class 4 felony,” said Dill, before imposing the sentence that should allow Kruse to continue to keep his job with Rural King.

The judge said he is required to set aside emotion and take into account the hardship to Kruse’s dependents in formulating his sentence. He also has to consider deterrence, he said.

When Kruse came to court to plead guilty last month, he and his attorney, Matt Lee of Champaign, believed that he would be able to serve the entire six-month jail sentence on electronic home detention.

But Dill declined to go along with that, saying he felt that decision should be up to him.

Kruse had been found eligible for the electronic home detention program by the sheriff’s office. The program requires defendants to stay in their homes any time they aren’t working or going to school or a medical appointment. They are subject to visits by deputies at any time and may not have alcohol, drugs or weapons in the home.

Dill did the same thing in an unrelated case involving aggravated driving under the influence Thursday where a defendant was prepared to plead guilty to that felony and serve the jail portion of his sentence on home confinement. When Dill balked at approving home confinement, the defendant declined to plead guilty.

Kruse, however, pleaded guilty, and Lee set about collecting evidence to convince Dill that home confinement was a suitable punishment.

Before Friday’s hearing, the Champaign attorney gave Dill 23 letters from people supportive of Kruse, a father of two boys, ages 5 and 2, who works at Rural King. Lee told the judge the felony conviction caused Kruse to be demoted from the store-manager position he held in Champaign to a warehouse job with the company.

Last month, Caitlin Connor's father, Matt, took 15 minutes to deliver an impassioned statement about the life-changing events of a year ago. During his statement and afterward, he urged the public to wise up about the safe and appropriate use of cellphones. He also objected to Kruse serving any part of his jail sentence at home.

Kruse listened intently to the pained father’s words. On Friday, it was his turn to respond, although his words were barely recognizable through his sobs.

“The decision I made on June 8th will haunt me for the rest of my life. I want Matt and Amanda Conner to know how sorry I am for the accident that killed their daughter, Caitlin. I also want to apologize to Debra and Lily Conner for all the injuries, pain and suffering that I have caused them. I can’t begin to express how I feel, but I deeply regret the decision I made and am truly sorry for all the pain it has caused your family. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could relive that day,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.

Matt Conner, one of about a dozen Conner family and friends who sat behind the prosecutor, kept his arms folded over his chest and his head down during the brief statement. After the hearing, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the home confinement.

Kruse, wearing a suit and tie, was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs to begin his jail sentence.

The mother of his children wept quietly. About a dozen Kruse supporters sat behind him and Lee.

Because Assistant State’s Attorney Victoria Dedman took no position on the home confinement, the bulk of Friday’s half-hour hearing was consumed with Lee’s argument.

“It was a huge mistake. It was not intentional. It was not malicious,” Lee said.

He argued that the same statute under which Kruse was criminally liable has “carve-outs” that allow activity such as scrolling through a phone to find music, using it as a GPS, or initiating a hands-free call.

“It very nearly wasn’t even unlawful at all,” Lee said.

Lee also said Kruse wanted home confinement so he could keep working and supporting his family, not merely to escape the discomfort of jail. Lee gave Dill the Rural King company handbook which states that any non-Family Medical Leave Act absence may not exceed 30 days.  

“We’re here because the only way this man can keep his job is if he is on home detention. Twenty-five years ago, a person sentenced to jail could get work release. The sheriff’s department decided for various reasons  ... they couldn’t handle work release, so from that point forward he could no longer get that sentence,” Lee said.

He also noted that Kruse had written an article about his experience for the Rural King company newsletter, distributed to 8,000 employees.

“He’s doing what he can to make amends,” Lee said.

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