In a case that gripped the community and county, District Judge Glenn Braun struggled with what the exact sentence was going to be up until a few seconds before he delivered it.
Braun even asked for a short recess to go back over victim-impact statements and to give one of the defendants extra time to reconsider addressing the court before sentencing.
In the end, Braun delivered the sentences for Holliann Stramel and Trevor Calvin — the two people who reached plea deals in the hit-and-run death of a rural Ellis County man, John Befort, in 2015.
“In the 10-minute break, I was pacing in my office not knowing what was going to happen,” Braun said, addressing the packed courtroom on the second floor of the Ellis County Courthouse on Monday afternoon.
Braun sentenced Stramel, the driver of the vehicle that struck and killed Befort, to one year house arrest and 60 days in jail upon finishing that sentence. The jail time will be done in at least 48-hour increments during her probation time following the house arrest. She also will spend nearly four years on probation total and was fined $25,000. She will not be able to leave her house unless going to work or taking the couple’s child to the doctor during the house arrest.
Stramel pleaded no contest at arraignment in January to failing to stop and render aid at a fatality accident and vehicular homicide.
She could have faced 34 months in prison and a fine up to $300,000 for the failure to stop and render aid charge, as well as a year in the county jail and a fine of $25,000 for the vehicular homicide charge.
Calvin, who was charged with helping cover up the crime, was sentenced to 60 days in jail and probation for 28 months. He had pleaded no contest in early January to concealing/altering evidence of a crime. He could have spent seven to 23 months in prison for the offense, but fell into the presumptive probation area under state sentencing guidelines.
“Time will tell whether Mr. Calvin and Ms. Stramel will take advantage of probation granted today,” Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said following the sentencings.
The two were tried separately in the death of 67-year-old Befort, who was struck by Stramel while driving Calvin’s pickup July 18, 2015, on a rural county road southwest of Hays.
Stramel didn’t stop at the scene and later was noted as being at three bars that evening with Calvin. Days later, upon questioning by the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office, Stramel admitted she was driving the vehicle.
That pickup belonging to Calvin was sent to Colorado by the couple to be repaired immediately following the accident.
Autopsy reports revealed the impact caused Befort to die immediately, and that he was thrown several feet into the ditch. He was found hours later by his brother, Pete Befort.
Investigators used small fragments of lights to piece together the crime, eventually searching for a pickup matching the description of the pieces of the light. Through a process of elimination and interviews, law enforcement ended up at the house of Calvin, who said the pickup had been in Rawlins County.
“Had you stopped, you couldn’t render any aid,” Braun told Stramel prior to her sentencing. “You killed him. Now the court has to determine with the community’s interest in mind what the proper sentence is.”
Victim’s family speaks
Prior to sentencing, Stramel and Calvin both sat with their attorneys at the defendants’ table. The court decided it would be best if victim-impact statements were read only once in the two cases tried separately to save the family from repeating their messages.
Marilyn Billinger, the sister of Befort, and Amy Befort, a sister-in-law of Befort, addressed the court in prepared statements.
“According to Holliann’s own admission, she did not stop to render aid, and she even went so far as to falsely claim to the investigator that John Befort jumped out in front of her truck,” Billinger said. “We know this claim is false due to the finding of the autopsy results. She even claimed that she didn’t stop to render aid because she thought she did nothing wrong. What kind of a person runs over a human being in broad daylight and continues driving as if nothing ever happened?”
She told of how the children in the family all had measles, chicken pox and mumps together at the same time while growing up, and how Befort walked the road every day to get exercise.
She brought up the fact that while under a no-contact order, the two conceived a child, and that just days prior to sentencing, Stramel filed a document with the court to seek rehab instead of prison time.
“I personally am appalled by Holliann Stramel’s motion filed at the last minute claiming that she should not even be sentenced according to the law and have the court grant her special considerations, minimizing her own criminal record and claiming that she should be put in a treatment program when nothing about this case alleges that her actions in this matter were related to substance abuse,” Billinger read. “And not without mention in this motion it states that ‘this case involves a terrible accident and a young woman’s efforts to deal with this unfortunate circumstance.’ ”
Befort said her husband still has nightmares about finding John in the ditch that evening, and that the family has been to 18 court hearings on the matter.
She said her brother-in-law was a kind person and always welcoming to anyone.
“We now know that the same day that my brother John was killed, the defendants went partying here in Hays, Kan.,” she said in her statement. “They went to three bars that night and posted selfies of themselves having a good time at those bars. We now know that they did this knowing that the vehicle used in the death of my brother was owned by Trevor Calvin, that Holliann Stramel was supposedly driving it, that John Befort had been left for dead after being struck by that pickup, and that they were in the process of hiding the pickup to alter it and have it repaired so that they would never have to pay for any of their crimes.”
Change of mind
Stramel’s attorney, Kurt Kerns, asked John Trembley, director of Northwest Kansas Community Corrections, to take the stand to answer a few questions about Stramel’s past.
He asked if Stramel had complied with all of her requirements during her time under community corrections’ watch. Trembley said she had, but he would not ever suggest a sentence for a person.
Kerns asked for leniency for his client with the judge and stated she works at a local coffee shop for minimum wage while raising their 8-month-old son.
“There are two hurting families here,” he said. “ … But we have to temper mercy with justice.”
He brought up the fact that a civil suit already had been settled, and that Stramel had accepted responsibility.
Braun gave Stramel the opportunity to address the court during her right to allocution.
“No, sir,” she said in response to the judge asking if she had anything to say.
Braun then decided to take a recess.
Upon returning, Stramel had decided to reconsider and address the court.
“I declined the offer to speak because I wasn’t emotionally strong enough to speak,” she said. “I apologize to the family. I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry, and I wish there was more I could say. I wish there was an opportunity to prove to everyone in the courtroom that I can be a productive member of society.”
Upon finishing, Braun rested his chin in the palm of his left hand and took a few seconds.
He broke the silence by saying it was the third death case he had been involved in, and even quoted the Roman philosopher Cicero.
“He was a person who left an unfillable void,” Braun said about Befort, before saying Stramel not intentionally but recklessly killed him.
He then handed out her sentence, and she eventually left the courtroom to begin her house arrest — which includes monitoring devices.
Calvin says media unfair
When his turn came for sentencing, Calvin didn’t hesitate upon his right for allocution.
He first addressed the issue of the no-contact order before turning to face Befort’s family, seated in the front row.
“I’m truly sorry for the part I took in this,” he said.
He said his commercial insurance policy was estimated at $1 million on his vehicle, and that he’s suffered from that since the accident.
“The premiums will be horrendous, almost to the point of being unaffordable,” he said to the judge.
He also stated the media, referring to a past article in The Hays Daily News, portrayed the couple — now married — as bad people.
“We’ve been portrayed by the media as violent and malicious people,” he said. “The last time, the media article mentioned my criminal history. … Ninety percent of the people out here will say that was in my early high school days. I was in trouble in the early years; obviously I grew out of my trouble stage. I thank the court for their time, and I hope the court doesn’t break my family apart.”
Braun told Calvin a felony DUI and misdemeanor DUI were from only a few years ago, to which Calvin disagreed.
He said he spent 47 days in a treatment facility and that alcohol used to be a big part of his life.
“I’ve addressed that problem in a very big way,” Calvin said. “I couldn’t do that without support, and that’s something I have.”
“Mr. Calvin, I’ve read the prelim testimony, about drinking beer by the pool and being so drunk you couldn’t drive home,” Braun said. “That doesn’t sound like some who has it under control.”
Braun asked Calvin if he had anything else he’d like to add.
“Just that I’m doing the best I can,” he answered, stating media reports since the accident have dropped the P&L of his business nearly 85 percent.
Calvin will spend his probation with community corrections, as well as have to serve his 60 days in jail in no less than 48-hour increments.