An 85-year-old Korean War veteran and widower — who otherwise lived a law-abiding life until last February when he drove his car through a home in Huntley killing a woman inside while under the influence of alcohol — was sentenced to two years probation Thursday.
Before sentencing, Donald Helfer told McHenry County Judge Sharon Prather that he will “suffer” with his guilty for the rest of his life.
“I always tried to live life by doing everything right,” Helfer said asking for forgiveness from the victim’s family who sat in the gallery.
Police said that at about 11:30 p.m. Feb. 4 Helfer drove his 2005 Mercury Grand Marquis through a yard and into the home of John and Mary Ann Arneson in the Sun City Del Webb community for older adults, where Helfer also lives.
Mary Ann Arneson died April 9 from her injuries. She was 75 and had been married to her husband John for 55 years. He survived the crash but his family said since his “best friend” died he has not been well. John Arneson did not attend Thursday’s sentencing hearing because he was ill.
Arneson’s daughter Michele Kohout said that evening of the crash her mother was sitting in her recliner chair in her bedroom about to go to bed. She recalled the extreme damage done to her mother’s bedroom and the hole in the wall from where her mother had been thrown by the impact of Helfer’s car.
“She was in the safest place she could have been in the whole world on a Saturday night,” Kohout said. “My father lost the love of his life. My dad is heartbroken. … (he) sleeps alone with her pictures close by.”
She said her parents grew up in the same small town and were partners and best friends, and this is not how they were supposed to spend their later years of life.
“My father is so lost,” she said through tears.
In a letter, her father asked that Helfer go to prison. He spoke of spending the final days with his wife in the hospital until she died and the whole family being together when they “saw her take her last breath.”
Helfer’s daughter, Renee Raymond, also took the stand asking that he not be sent to jail. She outlined his many health issues and said he would not survive incarceration.
Describing him as ethical, a blessing in her life, her rock and hero, Raymond said Helfer is a wonderful doting father and grandfather who took her to first grade when she was scared and helped her with math in high school. She described his patience and love for her mother as he cared for her in her final years battling dementia before she died in 2012.
“He never did anything wrong to anyone ever,” Raymond said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs said he understands the unique circumstances of the case but said what Helfer did had a “devastating impact” and was “entirely avoidable.”
“He chose to drink and drive and he knew better,” Combs said.
Helfer’s attorney Robert Heap said he is “not making light of what happened that evening” but said his client has no criminal record, is a good family man who was married to his late wife for 52 years and has lived a law-abiding life.
He also said though unclear if it played a role, Helfer did have a pacemaker put in days before the accident and he has no memory of crashing through the house. He added Helfer’s blood alcohol was just .08 and he was not in a “drunken stupor.”
“He has done everything right in his life … but for this incident … it took away a life and changed his own,” Heap said.
Prather expressed her sympathies to the Arneson family. But she also cited Helfer’s lack of any criminal history, his 85 years as an upstanding family man and said this case had “extraordinary circumstances” therefore was probational.
Helfer has lost his license and also must pay $1,500 in fines, abstain from alcohol, attend DUI classes. He also was sentenced to 180 days in jail but that was stayed. At the prosecutor's request the judge ordered Helfer have no contact with the Arneson family.