During an emotion-packed, two-hour hearing, friends and family of a Valley man who admitted to killing two people during a off-roading outing last year crowded a Payson courtroom Thursday to ask a judge for leniency.
Sharrod Lynn Stone faced up to eight years in prison for the death of Devin Grace Frantzke, 14, and Jeff Johnston, 55, both ejected when the Jeep Stone was driving rolled down a 23-foot embankment off Doll Baby Road in July.
Six other people in the vehicle, including Frantzke’s father, Mark, Stone and two of his children, survived with minor injuries.
As Superior Court Judge Robert Duber II asked for comments Thursday, all but one asked for the shortest sentence.
Through sobs, Mark Frantzke said while all of their hearts were broken, imprisoning Stone would not heal them faster.
“Nothing that is decided today will bring Devin and Jeff back, just as we believe no greater punishment needs to be bestowed on Sharrod that he will not feel every day for the rest of his life,” he said.
“What positive can come from Sharrod going to jail? He is not a criminal. He does not need rehabilitation ... The hurt, the guilt, the pain he feels every day is far more punishable than any time behind bars.”
Frantzke admitted people used poor judgment that night, but said the blame did not rest solely with Stone. Frantzke pleaded guilty to child abuse several months ago for letting Devin ride in the vehicle without a seat belt.
Eight people had piled into Stone’s open-top Jeep that night to go four-wheeling, which the children loved, Frantzke said. Devin and Stone’s sons were unrestrained in the rear cargo area of the Jeep with a cooler of beer. Only Stone and Mark wore seat belts, according to police reports.
With music blasting, the group traveled several miles over winding dirt roads west of town.
Frantzke later told police he told Stone to slow down at least once. As they rounded a curve, Stone lost control and the Jeep rolled.
Devin’s maternal grandmother Sharon wrote to Duber that Stone had robbed them of her daughter’s only child.
“She was propelled out of the vehicle like a bullet. He took her life as though he had shot her through the head with a bullet,” wrote Sharon.
A victim’s representative read Sharon’s letter to the court because she had not felt strong enough to appear, said Gila County Deputy Attorney Shawn Fuller.
“She is dead and he needs to be punished. He made the decision to place his own precious children and Devin in the cargo area. What a miserable role model he is. His kids survived, but there could have easily been three dead children,” she wrote.
One of Stone’s children, who was not in the vehicle that night, told Duber his father was a good man. Frantzke and Stone’s attorney added that Stone’s children needed their father back as soon as possible.
After listening to an outpouring of support from his surrounding friends and family, Stone stood in a county issued-orange jumpsuit and chains and visibly shook.
“I want you to know your honor that I am truly sorry for my conduct. That if I could trade myself for Devin and Jeff to have them back with their families I would do it in a second even though my sons wouldn’t have me as a father, but I know they would understand,” he said. “I wake up every single day and it’s surreal and I try to figure out a way to fix everything ... I don’t know how to fix it.”
Duber said he had weighed several factors in sentencing the case, including Stone’s remorse and upstanding background, the family’s feelings, and the social impact.
Give too lenient a sentence and the public may perceive that causing the death of someone else bears no consequence.
“There needs to be a perception by the public when they read that somebody who caused the death of two other people in a traffic accident that involved alcohol and one of those people was a child that person will go to jail no matter who they are, no matter what they have done, they will be held accountable,” he said. “It is not who you are, but what you did that makes you accountable.”
Duber sentenced Stone to four years in prison, the minimum under the plea agreement. “Given all that I know here, prison is reasonable taking into account both your remorse and more importantly, what I find to be significant, is the victim’s perception of what should happen to you.”