RACINE — Tyler Martinez isn’t a good driver. No one denies it.
But on Oct. 20, 2017, it cost Michael Fuchsgruber his life. And on Tuesday, Martinez lost his freedom.
Fuchsgruber had been bicycling with his teenage son on Douglas Avenue in Caledonia not long before 10 p.m. that night when the car Martinez was driving hit Fuchsgruber. Fuchsgruber’s son screamed for “Help!” and two witnesses took turns performing CPR before paramedics arrived, but it was futile. Fuchsgruber died before reaching the hospital.
Martinez has maintained that he didn’t know he hit a person. He said he had been changing the radio station, with his fiancée dozing in the passenger seat and two daughters in the backseat, when he felt the car hit something. He thought it was a mailbox and, fearing he’d get a ticket and mistakenly thinking his license was suspended because of a litany of past violations, drove home.
He had not hit a mailbox. He hit Fuchsgruber.
Martinez, 29, of Racine, was sentenced on Tuesday to five years in prison after pleading guilty/no contest to hit-and-run involving death.
Both families speak out
Fuchsgruber’s mother pleaded for a “heavy, heavy sentence … my grandson doesn’t have a father anymore.” Fuchsgruber’s uncle added that the “whole family has been torn apart.” Fuchsgruber’s son sat silently in the courtroom the whole time, rarely looking up from the floor.
Martinez’s family pleaded for leniency. Circuit Court Judge Faye Flancher admitted that Martinez is “not a frequent flier” who repeatedly finds himself in court.
A union construction worker, Martinez is the sole breadwinner for his family and has shown remorse. Vanessa Gaona, Martinez’s fiancée, said that he now wakes up crying most nights: “He’s not the same person anymore.”
Fuchsgruber and Martinez should both be considered victims in the “horrible accident,” Gaona continued. “We should have stayed on the scene, but it just didn’t happen that way.”
“Mr. Martinez shouldn’t be defined by this poor decision,” Mark Pecora, Martinez’s defense attorney, attested. “It’s an anomaly, it’s not who Mr. Martinez is.”
Martinez’s sister, Brandie Strickland, said her brother has anxiety attacks whenever he sees someone riding a bicycle. “So many people are affected by this,” Strickland said. “He’s not heartless.”
“It will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Martinez said in a final statement to the judge, displaying his regret while fighting through tears.
The state Department of Corrections recommended a sentence of 6 to 8 years for Martinez.
Racine County Assistant District Attorney Antoinette Rich did not make any specific recommendations, leaving it to the judge’s discretion.
Pecora didn’t even try asking for probation only. “This is a prison case,” he admitted, asking for 2 to 3 years of incarceration for his client.
“This is a tragedy for both families … no one is going to be happy with your decision,” Pecora told Flancher.
‘You are a menace on the road’
“This is indeed tragic,” Flancher said. In regard to public safety, she noted Martinez’s “deplorable” driving record, filled with moving violations, speeding tickets and multiple accidents.
“There is no justification. Speed kills, Mr. Martinez. And, as you are now aware, inattentive driving kills,” Flancher continued. “You are a menace on the road.”
In 2017, 783 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles in the U.S., with 38% of those crashes occurring between 6 p.m. and midnight, according to the United States Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
As for the hit-and-run allegations and Martinez’s claim that he thought he had struck a mailbox, Flancher said: “If you didn’t know what you hit, you should’ve been able to hear the screaming of his child.”
At the mention of the screaming, Martinez shuddered and whimpered aloud. Fuchsgruber’s son, sitting in the gallery about 10 feet behind the man who was driving the car that killed his father, did not move.
Flancher went with one of the heaviest penalties recommended. Martinez was sentenced to five years in prison with another three years of extended supervision to follow. Flancher added: “Early release would seriously depreciate the seriousness of your crime.”
“Oh God, no!” Gaona impulsively yelled out when Flancher laid down her sentence.
Gaona kissed Martinez briefly before they were pulled apart by deputies in the courtroom. Gaona left the building in tears, surrounded by lamenting family members.
Martinez was taken away in shackles and an orange Racine County Jail jumpsuit, crying all the way.
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