With a stern warning, a judge Friday granted a Maize Elementary School teacher probation for driving drunk when her car collided with a speeding motorcyclist, who later died of his injuries.
Judge Ted Griffith told Michelle Gottschalk that if she failed to meet any of her probation requirements — including that she speak to students about the dangers of drinking and driving — he would send her to jail for six months.
Griffith, a Wichita Municipal Court judge, said he has lost sleep thinking about the case. The accident happened about 11:25 p.m. June 11, 2011, at 135th Street West and Douglas, in far west Wichita. The motorcyclist, Wade Titus, 28, an aviation worker, died hours after the accident. In court Friday, Griffith heard Titus’ mother, aunt and fiancee speak about him and how the tragedy affected them. Griffith said it was clear that Titus was a “wonderful person.” Titus’ fiancee said he was a man who never drank, because he didn’t want his judgment to be affected, and who died as a consequence of someone else being impaired.
The judge said his deliberation wasn’t easy because “mistakes were made on both sides.”
Assistant City Attorney Penny Watson noted that Gottschalk, 43, had a blood-alcohol level of .11, over the legal limit of .08.
Defense attorney John Stang said Titus was going about 120 mph.
The judge said in court that he was outraged by unspecified “reports” that Gottschalk’s son, said to have been 13 or 14 at the time, was driving a vehicle behind her because her spouse also was intoxicated at the time of the collision. Griffith said he is suspicious of that account and wonders whether Gottschalk’s spouse could have been the one behind the wheel in the second vehicle.
The judge said it made him question Gottschalk’s parenting ability. As part of her probation, he is requiring her to attend a parenting class and forbidding her to go to a liquor store or drinking establishment.
Before the judge gave the sentence, Stang, the defense attorney, argued that Gottschalk had accepted responsibility and cooperated completely with police. “At no time has she denied she was under the influence,” Stang said. He said she “feels awful” about the accident.
Stang faulted Titus for going four times the 30 mph speed limit, saying, “I can’t believe that Mr. Titus didn’t understand the risk he was taking.” He said there also was a report that the motorcycle light wasn’t on or wasn’t working properly.
“Whether she had a drink or not that night, we would have still had that accident,” Stang said.
In arguing that she not spend time in jail, Stang asked the judge to “treat my client like anyone else who has a (first-time) DUI” and grant her probation.
“She made some poor decisions … but there were a number of poor decisions made that night,” Stang said, calling it “a perfect storm” for a tragedy.
Watson, the prosecutor, told the judge that Titus was riding to a friend’s house that night and going north on 135th Street. At the same time, Gottschalk was heading south, toward Titus. Watson said Gottschalk had left her parents’ home and told police she had one margarita. Gottschalk said she might have been distracted by another motorcycle before the collision.
Watson argued that Gottschalk hadn’t taken responsibility because she told police “I got hit.” Instead, Watson said, Gottschalk “turned left in front of him, causing him to lose his life.”
Although Titus made a mistake by speeding, “he paid the ultimate price,” and it was Titus, not Gottschalk, “who got hit,” she said.
The prosecutor asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence for a first-time DUI — six months in jail.
“This is not your typical DUI, judge,” the prosecutor said.
Gottschalk had pleaded no contest to misdemeanor driving under the influence and no contest to not yielding the right of way.
It’s fairly rare for a DUI involving a fatality not to be charged as a felony, which is a more serious crime, said Ron Wilkey, a senior victim advocate for the DUI Victim Center of Kansas.
In an interview earlier this week, Titus’ mother, Tammy Titus, said she thinks prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office should have charged Gottschalk with a felony instead of a misdemeanor “because a person lost their life in a crash.” She said her understanding is that the DA’s Office thought her son’s speed was a factor.
Wichita police Lt. Joe Schroeder, who oversees traffic investigations, said police presented the case to the DA’s Office, which has the authority to seek felony charges. “In this case, there were a lot of mitigating factors involved,” Schroeder said, declining to elaborate.
DA’s spokeswoman Sheri Boeken said that the DA’s Office reviewed the case involving Titus’ death several months ago and declined to prosecute Gottschalk “due to the circumstances of the case.” She wouldn’t elaborate.
Schroeder said police are still investigating whether Gottschalk’s son was driving a second family vehicle behind her at the time of the collision.
Tammy Titus said she thinks Gottschalk should have lost her teaching job over the DUI. The Titus family held what the school district described as a “peaceful demonstration” near a Maize school. Tammy Titus said it was to “raise awareness” of the case.
Maize school district spokeswoman Karen McDermott said the district is aware of the DUI case. The district has no specific policy on employees found to be driving under the influence and a misdemeanor charge wouldn’t affect a teaching license, McDermott said.
McDermott said Gottschalk, who teaches second grade, has not been disciplined over the DUI.
A wrongful-death petition filed in District Court, naming Titus’ fiancee as the plaintiff and Gottschalk as the defendant, resulted in a $100,000 judgment. The money came from Gottschalk’s insurance.