EDITOR'S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
BELLAIRE — Thomas Altobelli stood in an Antrim County courtroom and spoke of his remorse for causing a head-on crash that killed a Central Lake woman.
In May, a judge handed Altobelli, 61, of Harrison Township, a 3- to 15-year sentence after he pleaded no contest to operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. The family of Diane Shafer, 37, once took some small solace in Altobelli's apology, but that changed when the case shifted from criminal to civil court.
Altobelli's stance moved from remorse to denial when his insurance company became involved in the Shafer family's civil lawsuit.
"I know that the family is a little bit confused by his actions," said attorney George Thompson, who represents Shafer's family. "When he spoke at the sentencing he expressed tremendous remorse, but his actions with the insurance company defense attorneys are not consistent with that."
Diane Shafer died from injuries she received in a two-vehicle crash on Nov. 23, 2012. The devoted mother was a fixture of the Central Lake community who worked and volunteered in the local school system in order to spend more time with her three daughters.
Shafer, her husband Paul Shafer and two of their three daughters spent their last day together Christmas shopping before driving through wintry weather back to Central Lake. James Rossiter, then-assistant prosecutor for Antrim County, said he remembers Paul Shafer recounted he told his daughter that it was the "kind of weather you had to be careful in."
"Then all the sudden they come over a hill and there's a truck in their lane and there's the crash," Rossiter said. "It was the day after Thanksgiving. It turned the whole season for them topsy-turvy."
Altobelli was behind the wheel of the truck, which accident reconstructionists placed entirely or almost entirely over the center line. Rossiter said Altobelli and a friend spent the day drinking in an Alba bar and were driving back to a vacation rental in the Lakes of the North subdivision. Altobelli's blood-alcohol content tested at .23, nearly three times the legal limit for driving.
The Shafers all suffered injuries. Diane Shafer lingered in a coma for almost two weeks before she died.
"You can imagine how tough this is on the three young girls," Thompson said.
The case didn't end when Altobelli stepped foot into Muskegon Heights' West Shoreline Correctional Facility in May. The Shafers filed a personal injury lawsuit against Altobelli and his insurance company in 13th Circuit Court and sought more than $25,000.
Altobelli's no contest plea gave him the right in the civil case to dispute whether his drunken driving and actions made him liable for the crash. But Thompson said that's off the table after the insurance company lawyers were late in filing a court document, signed by Altobelli, that disputed those topics.
"Because they responded in neither a timely nor proper fashion, they wanted (13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power) to allow them to amend the answer and dispute those topics," Thompson said. "The judge didn't give them that relief."
Thompson said the Shafer family is "confused and disappointed" Altobelli appeared to dispute his fault in the crash by signing the tardy court document. A four-day jury trial is scheduled for May 2014 in 13th Circuit Court.
Altobelli won't be eligible for release until May 17, 2016.