WILKES-BARRE — It was an emotional day in a Luzerne County courtroom as a Hazleton man pleaded guilty in a DUI crash that killed a 94-year-old woman.
Christopher Ecker, 31, appeared in court Friday before Luzerne County Judge William H. Amesbury. Ecker had come to an agreement to plead guilty and be sentenced immediately.
He will have to serve four to eight years in state prison followed by two years of special probation.
Gathered in a small courtroom to hear Ecker’s fate were members of his family and relatives of Rose Marie Lombardo, the woman Ecker was accused of killing on June 3, 2017.
Prosecutors said Ecker was driving on Hazle Township Boulevard at nearly 113 mph with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the .08 limit when he swerved into a 2000 Honda Civic driven by Richard Palushock. Lombardo was a passenger in the Honda. Ecker was driving a 2014 Ford Mustang GT 5.0 he had taken from the Barber Ford dealership in Hazleton.
Amesbury, almost taking on the tone of a disappointed father, repeatedly highlighted the sad circumstances of the case.
“This is truly, truly a tragic morning for everyone who is here,” Amesbury said.
Ecker entered guilty pleas on charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence and aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, both felonies. He also pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor DUI charges.
Before Ecker was sentenced, a statement was made by Steve Martonick, Lombardo’s grandson.
Martonick said he was Lombardo’s primary caregiver, despite the fact she was a “fully-functioning person.” Martonick recalled getting lunch with his grandmother every day and taking her to run errands on Saturdays.
“I should’ve been driving that Saturday; I was just out of town and Richard was doing me a favor,” Martonick said, with emotion rising in his voice.
Martonick did have sympathy for Ecker, though.
“I feel bad for him, too, since he’s lost his life,” Martonick said through tears.
Amesbury read off a handful of statements submitted to him, including one by Palushock.
“‘This impacts my life, knowing someone died in my arms,’” Palushock said through Amesbury. “‘I hope you think about it as you sit in prison.’”
However, Amesbury said he had some 19 testimonials written in Ecker’s favor, suggesting he was an “exceptional” individual who had made an uncharacteristic mistake.
His defense attorney, Bruce Miller, echoed these statements, saying his client wanted to take responsibility for his actions from the start. He noted Ecker made no excuses and had even filed no motions in his defense.
Amesbury acknowledged Ecker may well be the good person his friends and family claim in their testimonials.
“But the frightening thing about it is that you can never undo it,” he said.
Amesbury denied the defense’s request to give Ecker credit for the 25 days he spent in a treatment program for alcohol abuse.
He was also ordered to pay $1,000 in fines and $11,000 in restitution to Lombardo’s family.
Ecker was remanded to the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. He will be transported to a state prison to begin his sentence.
Ecker is still facing a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Lombardo’s family.
Barber Ford is also named as a defendant in that suit.
According to the filing, Ecker went to the dealership after consuming numerous alcoholic beverages to meet with an employee there, John Anthony Craig.
Ecker then allegedly took the keys to the Mustang from an unsecured keyboard and took the car out. The suit alleges this is something he had done numerous times in the past, sometimes without permission.
The lawsuit argues that someone at the dealership should have prevented Ecker from taking the vehicle.
Cusat’s Cafe on Alter Street in Hazleton, where Ecker was allegedly drinking, was also added as a defendant.
It was not immediately clear how Ecker’s guilty plea would impact the lawsuit.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan