Emotions boil over at accident sentencing

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The victim’s brother was doused with pepper spray after Stephen A. Strassburg was sentenced to three to six years in jail for homicide by vehicle. Emotions, held to sobs and tears – many tears – in a Montgomery County courtroom Monday, erupted outside the courtroom when a victim’s family confronted the family of the man responsible for a deadly car accident.

Some of the overwrought members of the victim’s family began shouting at the members of the defendant’s family, yelling that while they still get to see their loved one, their family member is lost to them forever.

Sheriff deputies and courthouse security dashed in to separate the families and move the victim’s family to outside the courthouse.

Deputies were forced to use pepper spray on the victim’s brother, 46-year-old Gregory Cooper of Philadelphia, who did not respond to their requests to leave the courthouse. A small child who was with the family also was treated for possible contact with the pepper spray, according to a security official.

During the sentencing hearing, Gregory Cooper choked up while describing his late brother, 50-year-old Wayne Cooper, to the judge.

“He was a great man,” said Gregory Cooper, one of 12 siblings. “He helped so many of us change our lives. He was our mentor.”

Turning to the defendant, Stephen A. Strassburg, 24, formerly of Sellersville, Gregory Cooper said he could not forgive him.

“I pray for you but I am still not there,” testified Gregory Cooper. “I could rip your head off for what you did to my brother and this family.”

Just prior to the melee, county President Judge Richard J. Hodgson sentenced Strassburg to a combined three to six years in a state prison for the homicide by motor vehicle case as well as for a probation violation of an unrelated case.

Assistant District Attorney Kate McGill said she believed the verbal confrontation outside the courtroom stemmed more from emotions than from unhappiness with the length of the sentence.

“I think they (the victim’s family members) were emotional about the entire case and it was an emotional day for them,” said McGill. “The family members who testified all talked about how important he (Wayne Cooper) was to the family, the fact that he was a family man, was a wonderful person who had a great influence on a lot of people. They cared for him a lot and you could see that in the courtroom.”

Some 25 family members, including his two sons, siblings, nieces, nephews with some of them wearing T-shirts with Wayne Cooper’s likeness, crowded onto one side of the courtroom. Another approximate nine supporters of Strassburg, including his mother, sister, brothers and other relatives and his former employer, sat on the other side.

Pausing frequently to collect himself, 27-year-old Wayne Cooper Jr. of Atlanta testified he and his dad were extremely close, talking to one another every day until Strassburg’s speeding car crossed over a double yellow line on County Line Road just east of Richardson Road in Montgomery Township about 12:30 a.m. July 30, 2009, and collided head-on with the car the older Cooper had been driving.

“I could talk to him about anything and he was always there to offer his thoughts and advice,” said the son. “He was just an amazing person who had an impact on the lives of everyone with whom he came into contact.”

The son said he is now raising his 9-year-old brother, who had lived with his father and was having a hard time dealing with his father’s death.

“It is hard for me to know what to say to him,” said the victim’s namesake. “I tell him that our dad is there with him in his heart and that I’ll always be there for him but I can’t be my dad.”

Wayne Cooper Jr. said he had a lot of negative things he had intended to tell Strassburg Monday but that God wanted him to forgive him.

“Me, I forgive you,” Wayne Cooper Jr. told Strassburg. “It takes a lot for me to say that to you.”

Strassburg’s family members described him as a caring, sensitive man who was doing his best to support his wife and young daughter at the time of the fatal collision. He had worked a double shift at the moving company where he was employed on the day of the fatal crash and fell asleep at the wheel on his way home when the crash occurred. He is extremely remorseful for his actions and the pain those actions have caused the Cooper family, they testified.

Facing the Cooper family, Strassburg apologized for his actions that resulted in the collision.

“I shouldn’t have been driving,” said Strassburg, who also suffered severe injuries in the accident including brain trauma. “I made some wrong decisions. I am truly sorry but there is nothing I can do to take back what happened. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.”

“Cases of this nature are always tragic,” said Hodgson before handing down his sentence. “There are no winners here.”

Cooper, an assistant press operator at Vertis Communications on County Line Road in New Britain Township, and co-worker Tyrone Moore, 46, of Philadelphia, were on a break, traveling east on County Line Road to a Wawa convenience store at the intersection with Rt. 202.

Strassburg was driving west on County Line Road at an estimated speed of 61 miles an hour in an area posted for 45-mile-an-hour traffic when his car suddenly veered into the eastbound lane and hit Cooper’s car, according to the criminal complaint. There was no time for the victim to take evasive action, according to authorities.

Cooper was pronounced dead at the scene while both Moore and Strassburg suffered severe injuries in the crash.

Tests revealed that Strassburg had traces of marijuana and a prescription anti-anxiety drug in his system but that it was reckless driving rather than the drugs that caused the accident.

During their investigation, authorities learned that Strassburg’s driver’s license had been suspended for one-year effective June 24, 2009, because of a prior driving under the influence of alcohol offense, the criminal complaint said.

At the time of the fatal accident, Strassburg was still serving a two-year probation sentence for a recklessly endangering charge stemming from a motor vehicle incident in Hatfield Township on March 31, 2008.

In that incident, a patrol officer, spotting a speeding car traveling northbound on Bethlehem Pike about 1:30 a.m., pulled onto the highway behind the car. The car sped up and was, at one point, clocked at traveling at almost 100 miles an hour.

Other patrol cars joined in the chase but the driver, later identified as Strassburg, refused to stop and, at one point, swerved his car towards one of the patrol cars, according to the criminal complaint.

Three patrol cars subsequently managed to box in Strassburg’s vehicle and he came to a stop.

Strassburg initially refused to open the driver’s door but then suddenly kicked it open, causing minor damage to one of the patrol cars. Getting out of his car, he began screaming and cursing at police, the complaint said.

Officers detected a strong odor of alcohol on Strassburg’s breath but he refused to agree to a blood test.

On June 24, 2008, Strassburg entered a guilty plea to charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and recklessly endangering another person. Under the terms of a plea bargain, he was sentenced to 72 hours to six months in jail, with a two-year probation sentence to follow after he completed his parole time. He was also ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and perform 12 hours of community service.

Strassburg on June 24 of this year pleaded guilty to homicide by motor vehicle, causing an accident that killed one person and injured another, driving under the influence of drugs, reckless driving and driving while his license was suspended.

He also admitted that the new charges constituted a violation of his probation on the older case.

The Intelligencer

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