Family, friends and neighbors of Richard and LaVeta Sanders occupied the first four rows of a Cass County courtroom Tuesday.
While waiting for the plea session to begin, they showed each other photos they had brought of the couple known for volunteering at charity breakfasts and hosting grandchildren over summers at their farm near Freeman, Mo.
The large, brightly colored photos, mounted on hardboard, showed Richard’s and LaVeta’s smiles across the room.
Just a few rows behind this group sat the 21-year-old man charged in the wreck that killed the Sanders couple, each 77, last April 26. Dale Aksamit, wearing jeans, boots, sunglasses perched on his head and two cans of dipping tobacco in his back pocket, turned away from the photos and the tears.
An hour or so later, Aksamit walked out of court, much to the anger of the group up front.
“I’m from Texas, and when somebody down there kills two people, they go to jail,” one woman said.
Aksamit, of Cleveland, Mo., received a negotiated sentence of suspended jail time, community service and probation. He had been charged with careless and imprudent driving resulting in an accident, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Friends and relatives of the Sanders couple think the crash warranted a more serious charge and punishment. The Missouri Highway Patrol determined, based on skid marks, that Aksamit had been traveling at 76 mph. The speed limit was 55.
Judge Dan Olsen accepted the plea, but demanded that alcohol monitoring be part of the order.
When asked to explain why a more serious charge was not filed, Cass County Prosecutor Ben Butler responded: “No comment.”
The accident occurred about 10:40 a.m. April 26, 2014, where Missouri 2 intersects with Holmes Road in rural Cass County.
The Sanders couple was returning home after helping serve a charity breakfast at the Freeman Community Club. They were crossing Holmes westbound in a 2009 Cadillac when it was struck by Aksamit’s southbound 1998 Dodge pickup.
LaVeta Sanders was killed. Her husband died four days later at a hospital. They had married in 1957. Richard Sanders was a Marine veteran of Vietnam who later worked for an oil company before they retired to an old family farm.
“She was the wind in his sail and he the rudder to her wheel,” their obituary said.
Members of the Sanders family acknowledge that Richard Sanders pulled into the intersection with a vehicle approaching, but contend that he would have crossed safely had the Aksamit truck not been traveling at a high speed.
Kent Sanders, a son of the couple, addressed Aksamit in court Tuesday and told him that his parents would have forgiven him. Sanders also made reference to posts on Aksamit’s Facebook page in which he complained about how “annoying” his injuries were and bragged about drinking.
Aksamit declined the judge’s offer for him to address the family.
“We didn’t want him (Aksamit) to go to jail for a long time,” Kent Sanders said. “But this punishment is meaningless and raises our biggest fear that something like this could happen again.”
The family said it had been led to believe that Aksamit’s punishment would be determined at a trial. They were “blindsided” when they learned of a plea deal that included no jail time.
According to Kent Sanders, a prosecutor explained to him that, “Everyone speeds, so a jury might relate to Aksamit and let him off.”
Sanders added that his family took no solace in being allowed to speak at the sentencing, which he described as “a completely meaningless and irrelevant exercise of emotion.”
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t powerful.
Diane Packingham, who was in Richard Sanders’ Sunday school class, carried a Macy’s sack to the front of the courtroom, set it on the floor and pulled out a pair of boots and shoes.
“These were the shoes they were wearing that day and now they’re empty,” Packingham said to Aksamit. “And now they’re empty because of you.
“I recommend that you fill them. You volunteer at the charity breakfasts in Freeman.”