PAXTON — A tearful and remorseful Thomas T. Hoekstra told Ford County Circuit Judge Matt Fitton on Friday that his decision to drive drunk on a summer night three years ago still weighs heavily on his mind.
"I know I made a horrible decision," the 28-year-old rural Paxton man said.
It was a decision, he said, that he will always regret — and a decision that has changed not only his own life but many others', too.
One of those lives ended when Hoekstra decided to get behind the wheel of a 1997 Dodge Caravan on that fateful August night. While heading south on U.S. 45 around 12:03 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2016, his minivan crossed the center line and collided head-on with a northbound 2001 Pontiac, killing the car's front-seat passenger, Kourtni Sue "Suzy" Elizabeth Eastman, 19, of Paxton, and leaving three others in the car injured.
Despite Fitton acknowledging Hoekstra's "heartfelt and very moving" statement to the court on Friday — along with the "impassioned" pleas of Hoekstra's attorney, Frank A. Astrella of Joliet, for the court to consider giving his client a community-based sentence — Fitton opted to sentence Hoekstra to three years in prison.
Two months earlier, Hoekstra pleaded guilty to reckless homicide, a Class 3 felony, in exchange for State's Attorney Andrew Killian agreeing to dismiss two other Class 2 felony counts of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol.
After sharing hugs and tears with his family, Hoekstra was remanded into the custody of the Ford County Sheriff's Office and immediately booked into the Ford County Jail to await transfer to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Fitton said Hoekstra will be eligible to apply for the IDOC's "impact incarceration," or boot camp, program. Fitton said Hoekstra will also be eligible to receive day-for-day credit — including for the 56 days he has already served in jail — meaning he could be released from the IDOC within one year and 126 days.
In sentencing Hoekstra, Fitton also ordered him to pay $18,113 in restitution.
While Astrella argued for up to 30 months of probation, Killian asked for the maximum term allowable — five years in prison.
Killian acknowledged that Hoekstra appears to have changed his life for the better since the accident, and Killian commended him for "realizing the path he was on can't continue." Killian, however, noted that the life that was lost cannot be replaced, and the pain and harm Hoekstra caused to her family and friends cannot be undone.
While Hoekstra has gained full-time employment and gotten married since the accident and still has the opportunity for a productive life, Miss Eastman, Killian said, does not.
Killian cited previous case law in arguing for a five-year sentence, while noting that such a sentence would be necessary to deter others from committing the same crime. A community-based sentence, Killian said, would depreciate the seriousness of Hoekstra's actions.
Astrella, meanwhile, noted that sentencing guidelines instruct courts to impose community-based sentences as an alternative to prison for a charge such as reckless homicide, unless there are aggravating factors so heinous they demand a more serious punishment.
Given that fact, Astrella said, lawmakers must have contemplated a scenario where a community-based sentence for a reckless homicide conviction would be appropriate.
"Who is that person (eligible for a community-based sentence) if it's not Tom?" Astrella asked.
Astrella also noted that in this case, Hoekstra has been out of jail on bond for almost three years and has never violated the terms of his bond, which indicates he is not a danger to society.
"He's proven that he can complete a community-based sentence," Astrella told Fitton. "Sending him to prison will hurt him. ... There's no benefit, unless you're talking about pure vengeance."
Judge: 'No winners here'
Astrella suggested that instead of sending Hoekstra to prison, Fitton allow him to remain free under certain conditions, such as a mandatory curfew or spending weekends in jail.
"You'd still have a hammer over his head," Astrella told Fitton, noting that a community-based sentence could be changed to a prison sentence if any terms were violated.
Astrella also noted that Hoekstra is sincere in his remorse.
"He thinks about it every day, at least every time I see him," Astrella said. "That's all he talks about — how terrible he feels."
Hoekstra said just as much when reading his statement to the court.
"I deeply apologize for my actions on Aug. 1, 2016," Hoekstra, wearing a black suit, said through tears. "I sincerely regret the wrath that my actions caused."
Hoekstra said that since the accident, he has dealt with his alcohol- and substance-abuse issues, and his "way of thinking" has changed so that he now has a "very positive, healthy mindset."
Such a mindset showed when he began a job after getting out of jail, only to find out some time later that he was working with Miss Eastman's ex-fiance.
"I went to work every single day hoping to make his day better," Hoekstra said.
Before sentencing Hoekstra, Fitton said both attorneys made "compelling" arguments, and he acknowledged Hoekstra's "heartfelt and very moving" statement. Fitton, however, said the need to deter others from committing the same crime was the one aggravating factor that demands more than a community-based sentence in this case.
"Obviously, there are no winners here," Fitton said before wishing Hoekstra and his family and Miss Eastman's family the best.
Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.