A drunken driver who cut short the life of 19-year-old Sara Rochelle Stilwell finally took responsibility for the Buchanan High School graduate's death three years ago when he was handcuffed in court Wednesday.
But instead of announcing a sentence, Judge Don Penner sent Michael Valentine, 24, of Fresno, to prison for an examination to determine the best punishment for him when he returns to Fresno County Superior Court within 90 days.
The courtroom scene was too much for Sara's mother to bear.
Clarissa Stilwell started crying when a bailiff put handcuffs on Valentine.
"It's been three years," she said. "Three long years."
She then composed herself enough to talk about her daughter, an aspiring actress who graduated from Buchanan in 2010 and who was the lead dancer in the school's production of "Guys and Dolls." She performed in more than a dozen shows at the Cynthia Merrill School of Performing Arts and for Roger Rocka's Junior Company.
"She was a beautiful daughter," Brian Stilwell said as he comforted his wife outside court Wednesday. "So full of life."
The quick-witted teen also loved English, philosophy and reading and writing, her family said. When she wasn't on stage, she worked as a waitress at Fairwinds retirement home in Fresno.
While working, she often broke out in Broadway songs.
"She loved to make them laugh,"said Sara's grandmother, Milena Verret, who added that her granddaughter played the part by wearing "an old lady's shawl."
Her promising life, they said, ended during the early hours of May 14, 2011, on a rural road northwest of Kerman near the San Joaquin River.
The California Highway Patrol said Valentine was driving a 1989 Pontiac Grand Am on Shields Avenue at excessive speed when he ran off the road on a curve west of Yuba Avenue around 3 a.m. Valentine, Stilwell and a 17-year-old passenger suffered major injuries. While Valentine and the other passenger recovered, Stilwell died two weeks later from her injuries.
Three months after the crash, Valentine posted $178,000 bail. He had been free until he was taken into custody on Wednesday.
In April he pleaded no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. His blood-alcohol was .16, or twice the legal limit to drive, court records indicated. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dismissed two felony drunken driving charges.
Valentine faces a maximum of 10 years in prison; county probation is recommending six years. But Valentine's lawyer, Sam Salhab, said his client is a prime candidate for probation since he has no prior criminal record.
"He's a good kid who made a mistake," Salhab said.
According to Salhab, Valentine, Stilwell and the other passenger were friends who went looking for a party in Kerman.
"There was drinking and some marijuana," said Salhab, who declined to say whether Stilwell took part in the illegal activity. But he said Valentine never intended to kill anyone that night. "It was dark and it was a dirt road and he lost control on a curve," said Salhab.
"Frankly, he doesn't remember what happened because he suffered major injuries, too," the lawyer said.
But the Stilwells said Valentine deserves the maximum penalty.
Brian Stilwell said he has read the CHP reports and discovered that Valentine was purposely driving reckless, "dodging telephone poles while speeding." His wife said: "He could have prevented the crash multiple times."