In the early morning hours of June 10, 2018, Eric C. Labahn of Mount Prospect, Ill. left a Three Lakes area tavern and got behind the wheel for the short drive back to his family's cabin on Allyn Road. Moments later, while traveling on Military Road, he swerved to avoid a deer and crashed into a tree.
Labahn's decision to drive while intoxicated that morning cost his passenger and close friend Austin Lockwood his life.
It will also cost Labahn three years of freedom, he learned Thursday afternoon.
Labahn, 23, appeared before Oneida County Circuit Judge Michael Bloom for sentencing Thursday on a charge of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle in connection with the 1 a.m. crash 16 months ago that killed Lockwood, 23, also of Mount Prospect.
The class D felony carries a maximum penalty of a $100,000 fine and 15 years in prison followed by 10 years of extended supervision.
Pursuant to a plea agreement with district attorney Michael Schiek, Labahn pled no contest to the charge. A presentence investigation (PSI) was ordered and Schiek agreed not to argue for a sentence beyond what was recommended in the report. Labahn's attorney, Andrew Mishlove, was free to argue for a lighter sentence under the terms of the agreement.
The PSI report, authored by the Department of Corrections, suggested a sentence of 10 years probation with one year in the county jail. But, as Labahn was reminded at the end of the nearly two-hour sentencing hearing, the judge was not bound by the agreement.
After hearing emotional testimony from family members on both sides of the case, Bloom ultimately sentenced LaBahn to three years in prison to be followed by four years extended supervision.
Landon Lockwood was the first to speak about the death of his older brother.
"I have never known life without my best friend. I have always been happy, but the defendant changed all that when he killed Austin," Lockwood said. "I am not happy, and angry all the time. This has ruined my life. We see the defendant walking around, smiling, like nothing is wrong, not taking responsibility for killing my brother, it makes me very angry."
He told the judge he disagreed with the sentencing recommendation in the PSI.
"Giving the defendant prison time is very important to me," he told Bloom.
Lockwood ended his statement by saying if Labahn does not learn from this he will probably become a repeat drunk driver.
Morgan Lockwood, the victim's older sister, was next to speak.
"On June 10, 2018, I lost my little brother, my cheerleader, someone I looked up to and most importantly, my best friend, by one selfish choice another person made to drive impaired," she said.
Lockwood said the loss of her brother ripped all sense of normalcy from the entire family and has left an unfillable void.
"Family holidays or celebration will never be the same. There will always be someone missing - Austin," she said. "When celebrating every Christmas, birthday or holiday with your family, Mr. Labahn, remember Austin didn't get a chance because of you."
She called her brother one of the most selfless individuals she has ever known and explained that he was in Three Lakes to help his friend Labahn get his family's cabin ready for the season.
"He was happiest when he was helping others," she remembered. "And this is how he was repaid, murdered by the defendant."
She, too, disagreed with the recommended sentence. Five years in prison would be more realistic, she said. She also questioned why the sentence for someone who kills someone while driving drunk starts at zero and noted that LaBahn had been warned by friends and family about the dangers of intoxicated driving.
She also asked Bloom to consider how he'd feel if it were his son who had been killed.
"I still call his (Austin's) phone, hoping he will pick up," she said in closing.
Lockwood's mother, Sheila, was last to speak.
"I'm very proud of all three of my kids, they have not gotten into trouble and they are hard workers. They are respectful and treat people with kindness," she said.
"Since the defendant killed Austin, I have had to learn about things I never knew and I never wanted to know," she added. "I had to cancel my son's life insurance, become the executor of Austin's estate, take over his loans, and close his bank accounts. I never wanted to know how to do any of that."
She told the judge she has used vacation time to travel to Madison to speak to state lawmakers about increasing the punishment for those who kill while driving impaired to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.
She also spoke of what she has learned about the criminal justice system.
"I never knew that laws protect the criminal, and as the victim, you've got to fight for what is right and just," she told Bloom.
She then asked the court to impose the maximum sentence.
"He should get life, exactly what he gave Austin, exactly what he gave me, exactly what he gave Brandon, exactly what he gave Morgan and all of Austin's loved ones," she said. "He made himself the judge and jury and sentenced all of us to life. A broken life, a life without someone you loved more than anything. A life without Austin."
She noted that her family has watched Labahn go on with his life since June 2018, completing a college degree while the case was pending. She said there are still some days since her son died that she "can barely put two thoughts together."
"I will never again have a happy day where my heart is light," she said in closing. "Devastating does not begin to describe this nightmare."
Labahn's mother Diane was the lone speaker on his behalf. She began by facing the Lockwood family and addressing them directly.
"Austin was a good man, a good friend, and his death has been a tremendous loss," she said. "It is horrible that until this moment, we have been unable to express our sympathy or remorse. The courts don't allow you to until the time of sentencing."
"We understand that there are no words that our family could ever express to take away the loss," she said. "Or the sadness and the anger that you are feeling."
There is "not a day that this tragedy is not in our minds, not a day that we are not overwhelmed by the with sickness," she added.
"Our family loved Austin, and it continues to mourn his death," she said.
Labahn disputed the allegation that her son "has been walking around a smiling" or acting like nothing happened.
"There is not a day where he is not overwhelmed with grief and heartbroken by the loss," Diane LaBahn said, noting that just seven hours before the accident she cooked for both young men at the cabin. She said she never could have imagined what would happen later.
"Two boys, two great friends, and very bad decisions and choices," she said. "What an inconceivable outcome."
In making his argument, Schiek reviewed the factors that must be considered at sentencing including the gravity of the defense, the character of the defendant, the need to protect the public from the defendant, and aggravating factors in the crime itself.
The gravity of the offense is obvious, he noted, as someone died.
While Labahn had not been in trouble with the law before the accident, Schiek cited the rate of reoffending by drunk drivers as a factor of needing to protect the public.
He also mentioned the high rate of speed at which the vehicle was traveling along the winding Military Road as aggravating factors.
"That spot where the tree that was impacted was a sign that recommended 20 m.p.h. with lines that showed the curves," Schiek said.
The public needs to learn a lesson from the case, the prosecutor added.
"It's unsettling that this type of behavior continues," he said. "I don't know what lesson it is going to take for people to understand that once they start consuming alcohol, they can't drive a vehicle. People who think this can't happen to me, or I just had one or two, it didn't affect me, I hope they are watching us."
Mishlove started his statement by facing the Lockwood side of the courtroom and offering sympathy on behalf of his client and the entire Labahn family.
He said his client is "broken" as a result of the decision he made that night in June 2018.
"I understand that he didn't face the consequences that Austin faced, but to say that he is broken doesn't even begin to address this," Mishlove said. "He has persevered in life. This loss is unmeasurable, it is unspeakable. Simply offering condolences and apologies is inadequate."
Mishlove said Labahn knows that he made a bad decision that night.
"Now he lives with the knowledge that he killed his best friend," he added.
LaBahn also apologized to the Lockwoods.
"I will try to make amends for my actions," he said as he wiped tears from his face. "I will never be able to express how truly sorry I am,"
He also apologized to his own family for what they've endured, noting they had always raised him to do the right thing.
"I recognize the ripple effect that my actions" he said. "Austin was one of the most loving, most hardworking persons I have ever met. He would do anything to help a friend."
He said Lockwood agreed to come along to get the cabin ready without hesitation and worked hard that day.
"My actions are why we are here today, and that is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life," Labahn said. "It isn't fair that I get to sit here today and Austin's not."
"This is a horrible case," Bloom said as he began his sentencing remarks. "The number of people whose lives have been severely impacted by what happened. Cases like this one are difficult because you have such a horrendous result. And by conduct that while reckless, was not intentional."
"Eric Labahn is presumed to have known that driving while intoxicated was risky and dangerous," Bloom continued. "But there is nothing in the record that he intended to harm or kill Austin Lockwood."
He noted that the Lockwood family "addressed the court in a manner that was pained and angry."
"They are approaching the hearing today from a position of justified anger. There is a lot of emotion running in this case," Bloom said. "But courts in Wisconsin do not sentence people based on emotion, even justified emotion."
"It's not rocket science, this is a grave and serious offense," he continued
"Austin Lockwood lost his life as a result of this offense," Bloom said. "This is an easily preventable offense."
While there was nothing offered by Schiek that showed that Labahn had intended to kill Lockwood, "the absolute finality of the impact of this offense on Austin Lockwood himself, and the deep and severe impact that this offense has had on Austin Lockwood's family, friends, and community makes this a very grave and serious offense," the judge continued
The judge also said he believes that the defendant has expressed remorse for causing Lockwood's death. But, Bloom noted, Labahn needs to come to terms with the effect alcohol has had on his life, on his victim, and the families of both men.
"The defendant has the wherewithal to change his behavior in the future, after he has been held accountable for what he has done in this case," he said.
Bloom also echoed the statements of the family members in noting "this was a preventable tragedy."
"This is not a situation where someone had one old fashioned too many at the fish fry before returning home," Bloom said. "This is the sort of partying where you park the car and stay at the lake. That's not what happened. If Mr. Labahn had said when they got in the car, let's take it nice and easy, maybe none of us would be here. This kind of thing has to stop. The court cannot send a message that this is in any way normal. Mrs. Lockwood's effects to make change reflects a growing discontent of some members of the public. If law is to be changed, that's a matter for legislature. The gravity is such that some amount of prison time is in order. I'm finding that a prison sentence is necessary to properly punish and deter others from engaging (in similar behavior)."
In addition to prison and supervision, Bloom also ordered that Labahn cannot consume alcohol while on probation, must pay restitution, court costs and perform 200 hours of community service, preferably speaking to youth and adults about the perils of drinking and driving.
After the hearing concluded, two Oneida County sheriff's deputies asked Labahn to stand and place his hands behind his back to be handcuffed for the trip to jail.
"There they go," Sheila Lockwood said quietly as the handcuffs clicked shut.
For Austin Lockwood's mother, who has become an activist looking to make first time OW charges criminal in nature and impose a mandatory minimum prison sentence for those who kill while driving drunk in both Wisconsin and Illinois, the sentence was bittersweet.
"It's not what we wanted but when the pre-sentence investigation came back with only probation, we were very disheartened by the legal system and everything," Sheila Lockwood said outside the courtroom after the hearing. "I think the judge weighed the gravity of it. Three years is not fair. It's been 16 months and we can still barely function. That's half of his sentence. It's not enough but it's something. He wanted us to be able to come back and say, if you drink and drive, you will go to jail. If you kill someone, you will go to prison."
Jamie Taylor may be reached at jamie @rivernewsonline.com.
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