Drunken driver sentenced in accident that killed Belton man

07/11/2014 4:42 PM

07/12/2014 2:57 PM

For members of the Leroy “Buddy” Bronson family, it was one more incomprehensible tragedy.

On Friday, they watched and lamented the sentencing of the man who pleaded guilty in the hit-and-run accident that killed Bronson last year. He also pleaded to involuntary vehicular manslaughter due to intoxication.

Three years ago, another drunken driver killed Bronson’s wife and daughter.

Now the man convicted of killing Bronson is getting what they considered a light sentence: two suspended sentences, and then 120 days in jail and followed by probation.

“It’s unthinkable,” said Tyler Bronson, a stepson of Bronson. “It teaches other drunk drivers that if they get in a wreck — fatality or nonfatality — to just run and you will get a light sentence.”

But the judge and prosecutors, while expressing their sympathy, said they were restrained by the evidence available to them.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Sandra Midkiff sentenced Ronald O’Kelly to a seven-year prison sentence on the manslaughter charge and a four-year prison sentence on the charge of leaving the scene of an accident.

Those sentences will be served concurrently. As part of a plea bargain agreement, Midkiff suspended both sentences and instructed O’Kelly to serve a 120-day callback sentence.

If O’Kelly serves the 120 days without issue, he will receive probation.

O’Kelly, 25, who had pleaded guilty in May, showed remorse on the stand.

“Since the accident I have thought about it every day, and there is nothing I can say that will make anything better,” he said, his voice occasionally halting.

“I’m super sorry about what happened,” he said. “I will have to live with it for the rest of my life, just like you guys will.”

Authorities had said that O’Kelly’s truck struck Bronson, 57, who was riding his motorcycle through the intersection of Bannister and Wornall roads in south Kansas City.

According to court records, Kansas City police officers responding to the area just after midnight on April 7, 2013, discovered a crashed Harley-Davidson near Bronson, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Several hundred feet to the west, they found a Ford F-150 that displayed accident damage.

The truck’s license plate led investigators to O’Kelly. Investigators contended that O’Kelly’s truck, traveling west on Bannister, had failed to stop at a red light and struck the motorcyclist, who had been riding south on Wornall.

Witnesses told investigators that O’Kelly had appeared intoxicated while drinking at a tavern earlier that evening. According to court documents, cellphone records indicated that O’Kelly was talking to a girlfriend at the time of the accident, and cell records also placed O’Kelly in the area of the crash when it occurred.

The next day, O’Kelly reported to a police facility accompanied by an attorney. Prosecutors charged him the following July.

Probation in this kind of case is common statewide and in Jackson County. Eight out of 10 Jackson County defendants sentenced for this crime — vehicular involuntary manslaughter due to intoxication — received probation from 2009 through 2013, according to state corrections records.

Statewide, about 65 percent of the defendants sentenced received probation over that period.

But much of the discussion in the courtroom Friday also included the events of July 4, 2011, in which O’Kelly played no part.

Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Brady Twenter asked the court’s indulgence as family members discussed the traffic deaths of Bronson’s wife, Diane, and their daughter, Anna, 11. Both died after their car collided with a vehicle heading the wrong way on Interstate 435 near 63rd Street.

The driver of the oncoming car, Felix Solano-Gallardo, had a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit. In March 2012, he received a 15-year prison term.

Tyler Bronson took the stand to describe how his life changed three years ago.

“I was in complete disbelief,” he said. “Twenty years old, and I was being told my mother and little sister were killed. I was the one the officers had to break the tragic news to. ... I will never forget that day because that was by far the worst day of my life, at least up to that point.”

He also described being awakened early on the morning of April 7, 2013.

“This time, it was Belton Police Department that showed up at my door,” he said.

“I couldn’t even imagine why they were at my door at 2:30 in the morning on a Sunday, because you wouldn’t think the same thing could happen twice. At least, not until I saw the look on their face when I opened the door. It was the same look I had seen on the Kansas City police officers’ face not quite two years earlier.”

Tyler Bronson said he was disappointed in the sentences O’Kelly received.

So was Donna Bronson, sister of Buddy Bronson.

To vent some of her frustration, she banged on bongo drums in front of the Jackson County Courthouse to alert passers-by about what she considered a light sentence for O’Kelly.

Accompanied by a few friends, Donna Bronson said she would never step foot in the courthouse again.

“I hate this justice system, I hate it,” she said. “My brother was more than roadkill.”

Following the hearing, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office issued a statement agreeing that the Bronson family had had to “endure two horrific and unimaginable tragedies.”

The statement added, “the man responsible for the second of these tragedies was sentenced to seven years. ... We share the frustration of the victim’s family with today’s outcome in the Buddy Bronson case.

“But the outcome was driven by the evidence available to the state.”

Prosecutors did not elaborate on evidence that led to the plea agreement.

Midkiff consoled Bronson’s friends and family members on their losses.

“It’s hard to understand and comprehend,” she said.

“Not every case has the evidence squared up and makes for a good prosecution,” she said.

But John Picerno, O’Kelly’s attorney, challenged the idea that his client was escaping the ordeal unscathed.

“He is going to be a convicted felon,” Picerno said.

Staff writer Mark Morris contributed to this report.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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