Tonya Hightower

Tonya Hightower

Tonya Hightower, 48, was sentenced Tuesday to 10-20 years in prison for aggravated vehicular homicide, with credit for the nine months she has already spent incarcerated.

She was not ordered to pay restitution, as the family did not request it.

At about 5 a.m. March 21, 2018, Hightower fell asleep while driving a tractor-trailer west on Interstate 80, causing a wreck that killed 57-year-old Laramie man Vidal Madera.

Hightower originally pleaded not guilty. In August, a jury determined that her decision to operate a vehicle while knowingly fatigued constituted a level of recklessness that met the standard for aggravated homicide by vehicle and found her guilty.

At the scene, Hightower told a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper that she had taken some leftover pills from a 2017 surgery, including hydrocodone, before the wreck.

She did not test positive for narcotics when a blood draw was conducted later, according to court records.

At the sentencing, the court heard victim impact statements from Vidal’s widow and three of his five children.

Kallie Hackbarth, victim witness coordinator for the Albany County Attorney’s Office, read three written impact statements, beginning with Tomasa Sanchez’s, who described learning about her husband’s death from patrol officers, and the difficulty of telling her children that their father had died. Sanchez said Hightower should not have been behind the wheel.

“With my husband’s death, it was no accident,” Hackbarth read from Sanchez’s statement. “It was a lack of responsibility.”

Hackbarth also delivered statements from Madera’s son, James Madera, and daughter Brenda, who was three months pregnant at the time of her father’s death.

Madera’s youngest child, Erica Madera, who was 17 when her father died, delivered her own statement.

Madera’s children said he was generous, caring, and a jack-of-all-trades — a skilled mechanic, saddler and metalworker. They said he loved Laramie, the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site, and the Archaeology Fair.

Sanchez and her children said the unexpected death resulted in expenses they could not afford as well time away from work. Sanchez said she can no longer see a doctor, as she was covered by her husband’s insurance policy.

James Madera, who asked the court to apply the maximum sentence of 20 years, said that the wreck has made it difficult for him to do his job, which involves working with tractor-trailers and responding to WHP calls.

The family also spoke of the shock of having to identify Madera’s body, which was badly disfigured. Madera was ejected from the vehicle despite the fact that he was wearing a seatbelt.

The family described Hightower as “cold” and lacking remorse during her trial.

Hightower and her husband, Isaac Hightower, also spoke before the court.

“I want to apologize for the tragedy that this family has been a victim of, and for my human weakness,” she said.

Defense attorney Brandon Vilos asked for leniency, as Hightower had no prior criminal record, and no driving infractions in her 22 years as a commercial truck driver.

He said the Wyoming Department of Corrections recommended her as an appropriate candidate for supervised probation.

Albany County prosecutor Benjamin Harwich said there was “not a single bit of mitigating information,” and that the state was obligated to request the maximum sentence.

Judge Tori Kricken said this cases like this are some of the most difficult to address.

“There can be no winners, no matter what the court does,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the sentence was a matter of respecting the jury’s conclusion that Hightower had acted recklessly. Hightower will also no longer be allowed to own firearms and must submit to a mandatory DNA draw.

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