Six-hundred fifty-five days.
That’s how long it has been since a drunken driver ran a red light and rammed into Samantha Gaylor’s Chevy Impala, killing three of her friends.
Gaylor survived, as did one of her passengers, but the impact wasn’t without consequences.
She said she woke up in a hospital bed with a brace supporting her neck and bleeding on her brain, but no memory of the crash. She returned to work but quit within six months.
A spiral of depression and anxiety, she said, made her turn to drugs to cope with the devastation.
But the worst part is that her toddler daughter has been robbed of a normal life.
And her friends Emily Phillips, Zachary Taylor and Jake Hallacy are dead.
“Each one of those days I spent 1,440 excruciating minutes feeling 655 individually different types of anger, sadness and guilt,” Gaylor said, her voice wavering through tears.
“My life has been disrupted, torn up and completely annihilated losing these three beautiful souls.”
The story of recovery and grief came out in a crowded Sedgwick County courtroom on Wednesday afternoon, not long before the man responsible for the fatal collision, Juan Pablo Gandara-Rodela, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Gandara-Rodela left a bar around closing time on July 27, 2014, after an evening of drinking, slammed into Gaylor’s car at the intersection of Tracy and Maple in west Wichita, and then fled from the scene.
The force of the impact ejected Hallacy, 26, and Phillips, 21, from the backseat of the car, killing them.
Taylor, 26, who was riding beside the pair, also died at the intersection.
Phillips was from McPherson; Hallacy and Taylor were Valley Center residents.
Gandara-Rodela, 32, pleaded guilty in January to three counts of second-degree reckless murder, two counts of aggravated battery and one count of leaving the scene of an accident. The 15-year sentence imposed Wednesday aligns with the prison term that attorneys negotiated for him in his plea agreement.
“This defendant’s never said that he was not at fault. He’s always admitted fault,” defense attorney Charles O’Hara told District Judge Warren Wilbert, who presided over Wednesday’s hearing.
“We came to … an agreement we thought would keep the families from having to go through anymore than they’re going through today. And we came up with 180 months.”
He added that Gandara-Rodela, a husband and father to three, will be deported after he is released from prison under the plea agreement.
Gandara-Rodela will be eligible to earn time off of his sentence if he exhibits good behavior in prison, meaning he could be released as early as 2027.
Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles, he sat silently as family members of his victims spoke in court. When it was his turn to address the judge, he apologized, saying through a Spanish interpreter:
“I’m so sorry that this happened.”
More than 50 family members and friends of those killed and injured packed into the courtroom. They sobbed quietly, dabbed at tears and even laughed at times as the parents and grandparents shared memories of their loved ones with the judge.
Phillips, mother to a little boy named Bandit and best friend to Gaylor, was beautiful with a streak of stubbornness in her. At 21, she was beautiful, full of life, funny, messy, blunt and brave.
“I wake up every morning now and close my eyes and pray to God that she will come barreling in through the front door after work just one more time, waking me up for breakfast,” her mother, Kory Phillips, said. “But she never does.”
Taylor, a cancer survivor, had a passion for football, cooking, tractor pulls and teasing his dog, Twinkie. He was Emily’s boyfriend and had sparked a happiness in her not seen before by her friends.
“Zach was simple. He was an easy-going farm boy,” his stepfather, Ronald Moon, said. “… He loved country music. And it seems like he is in every country song I listen to.”
Hallacy, a mechanic who’d fix his family’s vehicle before his own, had been best friends with Taylor since the first grade. He loved children, enjoyed spending time outdoors and believed respect should be earned.
His mother, Artys Hallacy, in a letter read in court, said: “At times his wisdom surprised me.”
Even though the prison sentence negotiated for Gandara-Rodela was 15 years, members of the victims’ families asked for the maximum penalty he could have received under Kansas law – 20 1/2 years imprisonment.
But the judge announced that he would follow the attorney’s recommendations, saying a jury could have convicted him of involuntary manslaughter rather than second-degree murder, which would have resulted in a shorter sentence.
That Gandara-Rodela had little prior criminal history and that the families were spared the trauma of a trial also played a role in the decision, he said.
“Emily, Zach, Jake – their lives mattered,” Phillips said while addressing the court. “I need them to matter to you, your honor. Because they didn’t matter to Mr. Gandara-Rodela that night in July.
“Nothing you could ever sentence him to will ever undo what’s been done.”