Judge shocked by image of minivan in house sends driver to jail

Waubeka man who stopped taking seizure medication, used marijuana to spend 1-1/2 years behind bars

OZAUKEE COUNTY Circuit Judge Sandy Williams referred to this photo of a minivan stuck wheels-first into the side of a house in Newburg when sentencing the driver last week to 1-1/2 years in the county jail. Photo courtesy of the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

In a crash that defied description, a photo of a minivan stuck wheels-first into the side of a house 15 feet off the ground was Exhibit 1 in a case that ended last week in Ozaukee County Circuit Court.

“I honestly don’t know where to begin in terms of the sheer shock this court had in seeing the photo of your vehicle launched into this house,” Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Sandy Williams told Alva P. Richards, the 36-year-old Waubeka man who was driving the minivan, during his sentencing hearing last week.

“To this day when I look at that photograph, I’m practically speechless,” she said. 

Richards pleaded no contest in March to a felony charge of second-degree recklessly endangering safety and a misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance in connection with the June 28 crash.

During the April 25 sentencing hearing, Williams said Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol was “absolutely justified” in recommending that Richards be sentenced to 1-1/2 years in prison, but instead Williams ordered him to serve that amount of time in the county jail. Richards is eligible for work release after 75 days in jail.

Williams also sentenced him to three years of probation.

From the beginning of the case, the bizarre accident that left a minivan stuck in the bedroom wall of a Newburg house and the owner who was sleeping covered in debris and motor oil begged an explanation.

Richards told authorities he thought a seizure like ones he has suffered before caused him to lose control of his minivan.

But a blood test showed that Richards had a significant amount of marijuana in his system at the time of the crash.

“I don’t know ... I don’t think anyone actually knows if you had a seizure, but we know you were impaired. That’s a fact,” Williams said.

Whether a seizure or marijuana contributed to the accident, Richards was reckless, Williams said, noting that he had stopped taking anti-seizure medication prior to the crash.

“If that was your choice to stop your seizure medication, whatever possessed you to ever drive a car?” she asked. “You think it’s OK to drive when you had that much marijuana in you?”

Richards was driving to work on Hawthorne Drive in Newburg at about 3:15 a.m. Thursday, June 28, when his 2009 Mazda minivan sped off the road, went through a yard and hit a 3 to 4-foot-tall fieldstone retaining wall between two properties.

Instead of hitting the wall and stopping, the minivan grazed a tree and went over the wall, launching into the house of Ken and Annette Bienlein. The vehicle destroyed the wall of the bedroom where Mr. Bienlein was sleeping, snapped trusses and poked a hole in the roof of the house.

Covered in motor oil and other auto fluids, Mr. Bienlein said it took him a few seconds after being jolted awake to figure out what had happened.

“I realized I was covered in debris,” he said shortly after the accident. “Then I noticed there was a car right there in our bedroom. Part of the car landed on the bed next to me, and there was glass and other debris everywhere.”

Fortunately, Mr. Bienlein said, his wife had gotten up to go to the bathroom and was not in the room at the time of the crash. “If both of us had been in bed, one of us would be dead,” he said. “The amount of debris everywhere was incredible.”

Authorities arrived at the scene to find Richards behind the wheel of the minivan stuck in the house. He appeared to be unconscious at first, but then lifted his head and began moving around the vehicle, according to an Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office report.

Eventually Richards climbed out a window of the minivan and fell about 15 feet to the ground.

Authorities described Richards as being in “an altered state of mind,” but later, when he became more lucid, he told deputies that he suffers from a seizure disorder and self-medicates by taking cannabidiol, or CBD, gummies he orders from Florida, which he said do not contain the active ingredient in marijuana, according to the report.

He also told authorities that he uses marijuana daily and had last smoked it at 6 p.m. the night before the accident, the report states.

Authorities found 0.6 grams of marijuana and a grinder in the minivan, according to the criminal complaint.

Richards was charged with second-offense marijuana possession, but that charge was dismissed as part of a plea agreement.

Remarkably, Gerol and Williams noted, Richards went to the Bienleins’ house with his children the day after the crash to apologize. Gerol said the Bienleins have been supportive of Richards throughout the duration of his court case.

“He was very apologetic,” Mrs. Bienlein said last year. “He was very scared he had hurt someone.

“I accepted his apology and told him to lead a good life.”

Referring to Richard’s apology, his attorney John Hawley said, “Unlike some people, he (Richards) tried to make things better.”

Hawley said Richards has undergone counseling to address his marijuana use and  deal with his seizure disorder.

“He’s got a lot of good things going for him,” Hawley said of Richards. “He made a mistake.

“There are people who belong in prison. He (Richards) isn’t one of them.”

In a brief statement, Richards apologized.

“I chose not to take my medication,” he said. “I didn’t take this seriously enough and I caused a serious accident. 

“I have taken my sobriety seriously (following the accident) and will continue to do so.”

As conditions of his probation, Williams ordered Richards to maintain absolute sobriety and not drive unless he is taking his medications as prescribed.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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