Prosecutors said Donald F. Helfer was drunk when he drove his 2005 Mercury Grand Marquis over a berm on the evening of Feb. 4 and crashed into John and Mary Ann Arneson’s bedroom.
Mary Ann Arneson died April 9 from her injuries. She was 75.
Holding before the court Thursday an enlarged photo of his mother, Mike Arneson expressed to Helfer the ways the fatal crash continues to haunt his family.
“You made a choice that fateful night to drink and drive,” Mike Arneson said in court.
After the wreck, Mary Ann told her husband that she had “thought someone was going to kill” her when the car crashed through their home, Mike Arneson said.
“Well guess what?” he said to Helfer. “You did.”
Helfer entered a negotiated plea Nov. 3 to aggravated driving under the influence.
He originally was charged with the offense in two different ways, which varied in potential punishment. Helfer faced spending the rest of his life in prison had he been convicted of both charges.
His blood-alcohol level the night of the crash was 0.08 percent, his attorney, Robert Heap, said.
“His remorse is substantial – it’s overwhelming,” Heap said.
Helfer’s friends and family testified about the 85-year-old’s character, noting that he served in the Korean War and took care of his ailing wife before her death in 2012.
Helfer’s daughter, Renee Raymond, said that her father struggles with health problems of his own, and she feared what his life in prison might look like.
“Honestly, this family has lost a life,” Raymond said. “I feel we would be losing another with incarceration.”
Helfer suffers from heart complications, high blood pressure, vision problems and memory loss, Heap said.
Before his sentencing, Helfer struggled to recite a prepared statement, which his attorney ultimately read for him. In the statement, Helfer said he always tried to live his life by “doing everything right.”
“I have punished myself every day for this,” Helfer wrote.
Since the crash, he no longer owns a vehicle.
Mary Ann Arneson and her husband, John, had been married 55 years. Mary Ann was a teacher for 28 years, a member of several book and card clubs and was an active member at Shepherd of the Prairie Lutheran Church, where she sang in the choir and volunteered.
She was seated in a reclining chair in her bedroom – “the safest place she could be in the world” – when the crash happened, her daughter, Michele Kohout, said.
John Arneson was too ill to come to court Thursday, but sent a letter for his daughter to read out loud.
“He sleeps in the guest room alone with pictures of my mother by his side,” Kohout said.
McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather’s decision to grant Helfer probation was based on his age and the fact that he had no criminal background. It also was unlikely he would ever commit the same crime again, she said.
Helfer’s sentence was accompanied by 180 days in jail, which he won’t serve if he successfully completes his two years of probation.
“There’s no sentence this court could choose to make anyone feel like justice has been served,” Prather said.