Emotional vigil held in Novato for man killed by DUI driver
NOVATO, Calif. - A vigil was held in Novato Friday night to honor a young man killed by a drunk driver, and to call attention to the relatively light sentence given to the driver.
"I don't think it's a fair sentence, not fair to anybody," said Peter Helldoerfer, father of Peter Alexander Helldoerfer.
Helldoerfer, who went by Alex, was 30 when he was struck in a crosswalk on Diablo Avenue on May 30, 2019.
The driver, Deanna Bowden, 30, was sentenced this week to 6 months in the Marin County Jail.
"What have I lost? I have lost my only child, my son, my love," said Alex's mother Kathleen Freitag, addressing a few dozen people gathered at the spot where Alex was struck.
Freitag read the same words she read in court, her "victim impact statement", describing Alex as smart, sweet, and kind.
"I miss seeing him dance around my condo, and I miss seeing him love every dog or puppy he encountered," said Freitag.
Coincidentally, Bowden and Helldoerfer were childhood friends, both growing up in Novato.
"A friend texted me it was you who hit him and I screamed," read Freitag. "It's really overwhelming how our lives are intertwined."
Alex lingered in the hospital for two days but never regained consciousness.
His family organized the vigil to honor him.
They also want to highlight - not only the human cost of drunk driving - but rigid sentencing guidelines aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.
"In the words of the judge, he said the system has been gutted and this is what he has to deal with, and it's not just Marin County, it's all of California," Freitag told KTVU.
Instead of gross vehicular manslaughter with DUI, which could bring a sentence up to ten years, Bowden was able to plead to vehicular manslaughter.
Factored in was the fact that she stopped at the scene, cooperated throughout her case, and it was her first offense.
In addition, she was not speeding, and was only two-tenths above the legal DUI limit.
"But what if you did that and weren't drunk?," posed a frustrated Freitag. "If I hit somebody, would I get six months too, whether I'm drunk or not drunk?"
Bowden's defense lawyer insists the penalty is appropriate under the law.
"Six months seems like nothing, but it really is something," said attorney Paul Burglin.
Bowden began serving her sentence in mid-January.
The judge, while unable to lengthen her term, did impose 4 years probation, barring her from possessing or using alcohol or drugs, and submitting to testing.
If she violates the terms, she could be re-sentenced to a much longer incarceration.
Bowden has been remorseful throughout the case.
"She will learn her lesson," said Burglin, "but if you send somebody like that to prison, you ruin them, you don't rehabilitate them, you ruin them."
At sentencing, and again before supporters at the vigil, Freitag had a direct message for Bowden.
"My wish for you Deanna is that you reach out to young people and tell them what happened," she read.
"Tell them you ended the life of a friend, and shattered your life as well."
Alex's parents say they are more sad than angry.
Bowden has wept throughout her court appearances, and cried when apologizing to them.
"She said 'I'm so so sorry and I will live the rest of the my life making the world better,' basically that's what she said," recounted Freitag.
On her release, Alex's parents say they would like to accompany Bowden to local high schools to talk to teenagers about responsible driving.
The are also proud of their son for choosing organ donation.
As he was removed from life support, they learned he had made the decision for them, and five recipients received the gift of life from Alex.