Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 20, 2013

Family of woman killed by drunk driver: 'It's just not fair'


— BELLAIRE — Paul Shafer had questions for the drunk driver who killed his wife and mother of his three children.

Did he know what it's like to take his children to a graveyard on Mother's Day?

Did he know what it's like to have a young daughter ask, "'I don't have a mommy anymore?'"

Shafer asked these questions to Thomas Altobelli, 60, of Harrison Township, during Altobelli's sentencing hearing Monday stemming from the Nov. 23 death of Shafer's wife, Diane Shafer, 37. Authorities said Altobelli was driving drunk when his vehicle collided head-on into the Shafer family vehicle.

Shafer, supported by family and friends, begged 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power to sentence Altobelli to the maximum 15 years in prison for operating while intoxicated causing death.

"I understand the guidelines for sentencing, but there is no justification for Diane’s death," he said.

Judge Power ultimately sentenced Altobelli to three to 15 years in prison.

Altobelli entered a no contest plea to a charge of operating while intoxicated causing death. He expressed remorse for the crime during Monday's hearing.

“I’ve been thinking about this since the day it happened and … I’m just so incredibly sorry for what’s happened and for the hurt and pain that I’ve caused you," Altobelli said. "From the deepest part of my heart, I hope you believe that."

The Shafers and two of their daughters were returning home to Central Lake from Christmas shopping on the day of the crash. Authorities said Altobelli's vehicle crossed the centerline on Alba Highway and crashed into the Shafers' van about 4 p.m.

Antrim County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney James Rossiter said Altobelli registered a .23 blood-alcohol content, which he said indicated Altobelli consumed close to 12 drinks. Accident reconstruction placed Altobelli's vehicle entirely or almost entirely in the Shafer vehicle's lane.

Shafer recalled the moments after the crash. Trapped in the van, he saw one daughter with a broken leg and the other outside the vehicle, her eyes as big as "silver dollars," asking what to do. He then saw Altobelli and a passenger — "two cowards" — with their hands in their pockets, "trying to hide the alcohol on their breath," he said.

Diane Shafer died two weeks later at Munson Medical Center.

Altobelli had a clean driving record and no prior criminal convictions prior to the crash, said his attorney, Thomas McHugh. Altobelli's 30-year career designing protective equipment for the U.S. Army exemplified his appreciation for human life, McHugh said.

Altobelli said words could not express his remorse.

"This has been something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," he said.

But Shafer said Altobelli is only remorseful he was caught. He and his wife of almost two decades were supposed to grow old together. Their daughters, ages 10, 13 and 14, have years ahead of sporting events, first dates and graduations their mother won't witness.

Diane Shafer loved all children, her husband said. She worked for the head start program at Central Lake schools and volunteered in their daughters' classrooms. She treated Paul Shafer's son from another marriage as her own. She ran the concession stand at softball games and coached cheerleading.

"This individual's actions on Nov. 23 not only ... devastated Diane’s family, but the community as a whole," Shafer said.

Diane Shafer taught others how to care for one another, her mother, Nancy McGinley, said. Her strength and spit-fire personality helped McGinley through an eight-year battle with breast cancer.

"She was my hero," McGinley said.

The man responsible for leaving their family with a permanent void deserves more than a minimum of three years in prison, said Diane Shafer's stepfather, Mike McGinley.

"This will never end. It's just not fair," he said.