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Driver sentenced to 15 years in state prison

L’ANSE — An Illinois man was sentenced to 57 months to 15 years in prison in Baraga County Circuit Court Monday for drunk driving in a fatal crash at the Holiday station in L’Anse.

Dawaun Johnson, 24, of University Park, Illinois, was working for the CR England company on the night of October 17, 2022. He began dozing off and veered off the road as he approached the station, killing Al Dantes Jr., who was filling up outside. The vehicle then continued into the Holiday store, injuring a worker and engulfing the station in flames.

For most of the night, a trainee had been behind the wheel. Johnson had been drinking brandy in the back of the truck — about half of a fifth, he later estimated. Blood-alcohol tests taken two hours after the crash showed him with a blood-alcohol level of 0.156 percent.

Johnson tried to sleep it off, but was woken up when the trainee hit his hours cap. Johnson took over behind the wheel. The crash happened about a half-hour later.

Unlike a lot of the criminals who come before the court, Johnson had been a model citizen before that night, Prosecutor Joseph O’Leary said. But his lack of judgment led to a “devastating” end that requires punishment, he said.

“Spotless record, seems to come from a good, solid family,” he said. “He made a mistake. But Your Honor, the mistake was so horrific, so beyond the pale of simple error, that none of that matters.”

Johnson pleaded guilty in March to operating while intoxicated – causing death, a 15-year felony. His sentence included credit for 72 days served.

At his sentencing Monday, he turned to deliver a statement to members of the Dantes family, who filled the gallery along with members of Johnson’s family.

He tearfully apologized to them for the pain he had caused.

“I’ve punished myself, and I allow myself to feel nothing but deep remorse and depression,” he said. “I’ve asked God for help and for forgiveness, and I’ve asked Al for his as well … Whenever I got to be happy, being around my family and my children, I would just feel bad just for being able to be around them, because I took somebody from you.”

Three of Al Dantes’ daughters, as well as Jessica Webb, the Holiday employee working at the store, spoke about the damage Johnson’s actions had done to their lives.

When his daughter Dannii would drive past a semi truck, her heart would race and she had to watch it until it disappeared, she said Monday. Going into a gas station would trigger anxiety for one of her sisters; they would have to tell her ahead of time when they were stopping for gas on a trip. Without the structure Dantes had given them, her younger sister started acting out in school.

And then there are the family members who never got to know him.

“My nephew will grow up never being able to meet the amazing grandpa that my dad would have been,” Dannii Dantes said. “He will only grow up hearing stories about how amazing his grandpa was.”

His daughter Adalynn remembered Al as an outgoing guy whose smile “lit up every room he stepped foot in.” They would watch scary movies together and go boating in the summer.

But since that night, any thoughts of him lead back to the crash.

“I have to live my life knowing my father isn’t going to be there on my wedding day to walk me down the aisle,” she said. “To be honest, I really do not feel like 15 years will ever be enough, because that would mean in 15 years or less, he can walk freely and live the life he took away from another human being. And I do wish the best for you and your family. I hope you can find God in the midst of all this. And I hope he can forgive you because I truly cannot find it in myself.”

In addition to killing Dantes and turning Webb’s life upside down, the crash destroyed the Holiday station, a 50-year-old business Webb described as “one of the hubs in this community.”

There had been only one other customer in the store at the time — an anomaly caused by employees at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility being required to work overtime that night. On a normal night, there would be 15 to 35 people in there between 11 p.m. and midnight, she said.

Webb still carries a sense of guilt. Somebody died while she was at work, and she’d had no idea he was still there.

“I’m basically the collateral damage in all of this because I walked away alive,” she said. “It’s an everyday battle to want to get out of bed sometimes. I hope that he gets the help he needs, but I hope he spends every day of the 15 years in there.”

The sentence was at the top of the guidelines, which called for a minimum sentence of 29 to 57 months.

O’Leary argued to depart upwards from the guidelines for a minimum sentence of 10 years. He said the guidelines didn’t adequately account for the trauma to the victims, or the additional danger of a semi.

Johnson’s attorney, Keith DeForge, said Johnson made a “very terrible choice.” But he pointed to Johnson’s determination to face the consequences. Many people in the community had scoffed at Johnson’s release on bond, DeForge said, telling him “You’re never going to see him again.”

“Every hearing, Mr. Johnson has been here in person,” he said. “Not one Zoom request. Every hearing, he presents himself in person to face for what he did.”

Bulleit stayed within the guidelines, saying that they took into account the behaviors, and were proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

She thanked Johnson for his apology to the family. But she urged him to listen to the family members and Webb, and think about their words for the rest of his life.

“Every decision you made, Mr. Johnson — to drink alcohol to excess while working and training a new driver, doing so in a vehicle that can and did cause massive damage when not driven appropriately, to drive that vehicle knowing you had been drinking alcohol and were tired — each decision by itself was incredibly reckless and dangerous, and put numerous people’s lives at risk,” she said. “And those decisions all together led to someone’s death.”

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