Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 16, 2013

Downstate man enters plea in fatal crash case


---- — BELLAIRE — The family of a Central Lake woman killed by a suspected drunken driver will soon be able to begin to move on, a relative said.

For Diane Shafer's family, the last few months dragged with court proceedings. There's an end in sight now that Thomas Altobelli, the suspect in the crash that caused her death, entered a no contest plea.

"It's good that it's getting closer to being over, but it's really frustrating to see him walk out of the courtroom and go home," said Donna McGinley, Shafer's step-sister.

Altobelli, 60, of Harrison Township, will be sentenced May 20 in Antrim County Circuit Court for operating while intoxicated causing death, a 15-year felony. Charges of operating while intoxicated causing serious injury and operating with a high blood-alcohol content were dismissed.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in early May. Altobelli remains free on bond pending sentencing.

Authorities said Altobelli crossed the center line on Alba Highway and collided head-on into a vehicle carrying Shafer, 37, on Nov. 23. Shafer died of her injuries in December at Munson Medical Center.

Altobelli took two blood-alcohol tests. The first test indicated a result of 0.207. The second came back at 0.23. The legal limit is 0.08 in Michigan.

Shafer was a Central Lake school assistant and mother to three girls, ages 10, 13 and 14. She and her husband, Paul, and two of their daughters were returning from a shopping trip at the time of the crash.

Altobelli acknowledged the crash caused serious injury to another family member, but the charge was dismissed in the plea deal, Antrim County Assistant Prosecutor Attorney James Rossiter said.

The whole family suffered, McGinley said. Their emotional injuries will never completely heal.

"My niece who wasn’t in the car, there's that emotional damage from the loss of her mother. We’d like to see him leave jail and my sister return to us," she said.

McGinley recently visited the family over Spring Break. They're adjusting with the support of the small town's community.

"It’s a lot on Paul going from -- Diane took care of everything. And now he’s got to go to all the dance classes and sports ... he doesn't have time to slow down," she said.

Rossiter said this was just one of those cases in which "there's no good news."

"Hopefully it brings them some type of closure (for the family)," he said.

Altobelli is an engineer for the U.S. Army and has worked with the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center facility in Warren for more than 30 years, an Army spokesman said. TARDEC provides research and technology development for a variety of military platforms, including tanks and humvees.

His attorney did not return calls for comment.