The tears flowed on both sides of the aisle yesterday as 16-year-old Joshua Pena pleaded guilty in Johnson County District Court to involuntary manslaughter in the vehicular death last year of a close friend, 16-year-old Zach Myers.
As a result of a plea agreement, Pena was sentenced to 60 days in the Juvenile Detention Center and two years of supervised probation. If he fails to abide by the terms of the probation, he could be sentenced to a detention term of 18 months to three years. Also, his driving privileges were suspended for a year.
Standing behind the defense table, a sobbing Pena told Judge Brenda Cameron:
“Not a day goes by that I do not pray, that I do not wish that I could take it all back and make it like it was before. I would do anything to bring Zach back. He was a great friend…I cannot describe how sorry I am.”
More than once, his attorney, Jason Billam, put his arm around Pena’s shoulders to comfort and support him.
In the audience, Pena’s parents and relatives cried on one side of the courtroom, and Myers’ parents and relatives cried on the other.
A few minutes earlier, Zach’s father, Capt. John Myers of the Olathe Fire Department, told the court that the loss of one of their two sons had been “overwhelming emotionally and physically.”
“It has left a hole in our hearts,” he said through tears and a breaking voice.
Zach, he said, “was well known for his bear hugs, and he sure wasn’t a sissy about giving them out.”
Later, Myers said: “It was an accident. We know he (Pena) didn’t mean to do it.” Turning to Pena, he said, We want you to know that we forgive you and that Zach forgives you.”
Neither alcohol nor drugs was involved in the wreck.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Pena walked back to the railing and gave his mother, Cynthia Pena, a long, tearful embrace. As he turned to leave with sheriff’s deputies, his mother told him to hug his father, standing next to her, and he did.
The father, who, oddly, had a Bluetooth over his right ear, declined to give his first name.
Myers died as a result of a two-car, head-on collision last December. Pena was driving the car that Myers and another student were in, and Pena admitted to driving at speeds up to 75 mph on North Iowa Street, in an area where the speed limit is 25.
The boys were on the way back to their school, Olathe Northwest, after having attended classes at the district’s trade school in downtown Olathe.
The driver of the other car had pulled around a truck that was parked on the side of the street, and there wasn’t room for her vehicle and Pena’s to pass.
Myers, who was sitting in the back seat, behind Pena, was struck in the head by a flying object in the car, perhaps a book bag or backpack, Billam said.
The three boys and the driver of the other car were wearing seat belts. No one other than Myers was seriously injured.
The hearing was so emotional that even Judge Cameron had to pause a couple of times to maintain her equanimity.
“It’s hard to know the right thing to say,” she said, looking at the Myers’ family before passing sentence. “It’s hard to say what would be just or fair. I can’t order restitution or make you whole. I wish I could…I’m very sorry for your loss.”
At the same time, she said that Pena’s apology was “heartfelt.”
“I hope that you can get beyond this and go back to being a successful young man,” she told Pena. “I know the victim’s family wants you to be successful, and I do, too.”
Pena, who has close-cropped black hair, wore a tan, short-sleeved detention center uniform with the letters JDC printed on the back. A thick leather belt was around his waist.
In anticipation of the plea agreement being approved by the judge, Billam had Pena surrender to juvenile authorities early last month. Because of that, Pena got credit for 29 days served as of Friday. After serving the final 31 days, he will be ready to enter his senior year at Olathe Northwest.
Zach Myers also would have been a senior.
Billam and Assistant District Attorney Don Hymer noted that, in addition to the criminal case, a civil lawsuit was pending. Billam and Hymer said the Pena and Myers families had agreed to the terms of a settlement and that the case should be resolved soon.
Correction: This story should have said that Pena admitted to driving at speeds up to 70 mph, not 75 mph.
P.S. I wrote other entries about this case on Dec. 6, 9, 15 and 21.