Heller gets six years probation in fatal hit-and-run
BOULDER – Edith Barbara Heller was sentenced to six months of house arrest and six years of probation Friday for leaving the scene of an October fatal accident.
Heller pleaded not guilty Feb. 1 to felony charges of hit and run resulting in the death of Christopher Glenn Ethridge of Breckenridge. The Berthoud woman, who turned 84 Feb. 14 – the same day Ethridge would have been 32 – was driving south in her Cadillac DeVille in north Boulder County last October when she hit Ethridge, who was riding his bike. Investigators said both were near the center line of the road, and it was difficult to determine who was at fault.
Heller, however, continued driving in her badly damaged vehicle until police pulled her over. Until March, when Heller changed her plea to guilty, she maintained she hadn’t struck Ethridge.
In addition to sentencing Heller to probation, Boulder District Court Judge Morris Sandstead ordered Heller to sell her vehicle and never drive again. She also must undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine if she has medical needs and, if so, if she needs to take medication, said prosecutor John Pickering.
The case and sentencing wasn’t easy for Sandstead or Pickering, said friends and relatives of Ethridge’s who attended the sentencing June 7.
Sandstead, an avid cyclist, said he had a difficult time with the case because he has an elderly father, said Mark Taylor, who co-owned Great Adventure Sports with Ethridge. Pickering’s mother is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Ms. Heller said some outrageous things when she was contacted by police,” Pickering said. “On the surface, you just read the words she said and think, “What kind of person could say this?’ But when you’ve been through the ordeal of a family member with Alzheimers or dementia, it’s part of the disease. That’s not to say that I’m overly sympathetic to Heller’s plight. It’s just that I do have some perspective.”
(Heller was reported to have repeatedly denied having struck Ethridge, but later said she knew she had hit him but didn’t feel she had to stop and help.)
Taylor said he agrees with Pickering’s view – to a certain extent.
“I’ve gone from feeling like, “What do you do to an 84-year-old woman?’ to lately feeling angry and vengeful,” Taylor said. “She killed somebody. But what do you do? You can’t bring Chris back, and does it pay to lock away this old woman who seems to not have her all mental facilities? There’s no making this one right.”
After the sentencing, Heller approached the family and apologized – a move that surprised Ethridge’s parents, Frank and Sylvia.
“We were not expecting that at all,” Sylvia Ethridge said. “She sounded sincere, but you have to wonder. We had not met Edith Heller; we hadn’t even seen her before. Edith was very different this time, we heard. Apparently she’d been coached by her attorneys.”
Ethridge’s parents said they think the sentence is fair.
“I felt the judge was very thoughtful and did the right thing,” Frank Ethridge said. “Our main concern was not to put this woman in jail, but to keep her off the road – forever. I think the judge, to the best of his ability, did this. This will keep her from driving ever again in her lifetime.”
He noted that Heller will be 90 years old when her probation ends.
“It was a difficult decision, a difficult case,” Sylvia Ethridge said. “It was largely because of her age, and there were no witnesses. I think it probably was fair, considering her age. I don’t know if I would have judged differently.”
“I’m reluctant to use a word like “fair’,” Pickering said of the sentence. “A young man, not a whole lot older than my oldest daughter, lost his life. I think it was the only thing he could do; his options were severely limited.
“I would have done exactly what the judge did had I been in his shoes,” Pickering added.
Pickering also said it was impossible to prove Heller crossed into Ethridge’s lane of traffic – or the other way around.
Although the court proceedings are over, the shock of Ethridge’s death still lingers among friends and family.
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Frank Ethridge said. “They say, “Now you can put this behind you and get on with your life. You can never get over the death of a child. I’m glad it’s over – the court part of it. But it’s never over.”
“I’ve got mixed emotions,” Sylvia Ethridge said. “This is a little more closure than there was before. But it’s never going to go away for us. There are constant little reminders; every time I see a biker on the road, I can’t help but think about him. If she had just stopped, a lot of this could have been avoided.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or email@example.com.
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