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Hibbing trucker sent to prison in fatal North Shore crash

TWO HARBORS, Minn.—Soon after a federal agency pulled his commercial trucking license and a judge ordered him not to drive, John Ray Carpenter was back behind the wheel.

The owner-operator of a Hibbing, Minn., septic services company, Carpenter had a documented history of sleep apnea that resulted in at least six crashes in recent years and dozens of violations of federal regulations.

But even after he blacked out at the wheel of his tanker in October 2015, crossing the centerline and killing an oncoming motorist, Carpenter disobeyed orders to stay off the road.

"Mr. Carpenter simply is not going to stop driving unless he is locked up," Lake County, Minn., prosecutor Lisa Hanson said Monday, Feb. 5.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden agreed, denying Carpenter's plea for leniency and sending him to prison for three years — the maximum sentence available under the terms of plea agreement.

Carpenter, 61, in December pleaded guilty to a felony charge of criminal vehicular homicide in the crash that killed 31-year-old Andrew Johnson of Silver Bay. He earlier admitted that he "dozed off" or "blacked out" prior to the crash along Lax Lake Road in Lake County.

But the defendant sought a probationary sentence, citing community support and his lack of criminal history—factors Hylden said were outweighed by Carpenter's continued disregard for public safety.

"You haven't stopped driving," the judge said. "That frankly just floors me. If there's one thing you could've done to show that you've taken this seriously and are working to make sure it doesn't happen again, it's that while your license is suspended you'd stop driving."

Johnson was a 2002 graduate of William Kelley High School in Silver Bay and a former junior hockey player. He was working for the city of Silver Bay at the time of his death.

His parents and sister all spoke about their loss during an emotional hearing in State District Court in Two Harbors, describing him as a kind and giving person who was always looking to help others.

"Drew was an extraordinary person," said his sister, Leah Bowsher. "To know him was to consider him a friend."

Johnson had been living with his parents in the final two years of his life and loved fishing, hunting and golf. He had lost partial use of his right hand in a construction accident but never complained, they said.

"During the last couple years, what a joy it was to have Andrew in my life," Roxanne Johnson said. "Now there are too many difficult days. The day he died. The day of his memorial, when more than 400 people showed up. The day we scattered his ashes. And now today."

The family asked Hylden to impose a prison sentence on the man responsible for his death.

"Mr. Carpenter has no remorse," Roxanne Johnson said. "He'll eventually go back to his old life, but we never will. He not only killed my son, but he's devastated my family."

Scott Johnson, the mayor of Silver Bay, said the family signed off on the plea agreement to spare the necessity for a trial and avoid the potential for an appeal. The family also has settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Carpenter, pending court approval.

"We did not agree to the plea negotiations to diminish the life of my son," Scott Johnson said. "We did not agree to the plea negotiations to diminish the guilt of John Carpenter. We did it to diminish the anguish Mr. Carpenter has caused our family, especially my wife."

Hanson bluntly outlined Carpenter's driving history. In addition to numerous citations and crashes, including several rollovers, the prosecutor said Carpenter received a dire inspection report from the Federal Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration just two months before killing Johnson.

Carpenter, who was known to black out at the wheel and once previously had his driving privileges suspended, accumulated 73 federal violations in the August 2015 inspection. He drove too many hours, falsified log books, lied to doctors and hid crashes from his insurer, Hanson said.

"Mr. Carpenter placed the interests of his business ahead of his own safety and, more important, the safety of the public," she told the judge. "He was playing Russian roulette every time he got behind the wheel."

Defense attorney Mikkel Long told the court that Carpenter had no prior criminal history and submitted to the court two dozen support letters written by family, friends and fellow businessmen in support of a probationary sentence.

Carpenter also offered an apology in a letter and in a statement to the court before receiving his sentence.

"I did not realize the extent and breadth of my past driving conduct until it was laid in front of me," he said. "I continue to have a difficult time coming to grips with what I did, and it is horrifying."

Hanson, however, argued that a prison sentence was not only appropriate in Carpenter's case but also necessary to send a message to the community.

"This was not an accident," she said. "This was inevitable. Given Mr. Carpenter's history, it was only a matter of time."

In imposing the sentence, which also included a $5,000 fine, Hylden stated simply: "I'm worried that if I put you on probation, you will just keep driving."

During the 45-minute hearing, the Lake County courtroom was filled on one side by grieving family and friends of Johnson and on the other by supporters of Carpenter.

After the hearing, as her husband was placed in handcuffs and led to the jail, Beth Carpenter walked across the aisle and gave an extended hug to Roxanne Johnson.

"I'm so sorry," Carpenter repeated several times as the women embraced.