Driver in Bigler crash gets 4 years

GLENWOOD – The drunk driver who caused the July head-on crash that killed Drake Bigler, the five-month-old son of Southwest Minnesota State University head men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler, was sentenced Friday morning in a packed Pope County District Courtroom.

Dana Schoen, 38, of Starbuck was sentenced to 48 months in prison for criminal vehicular homicide. On the two other counts of criminal vehicular operation, Schoen received stayed execution of sentence for 13 and 15 months. He was sentenced to three years probation with conditions, including treatment and aftercare program completion, abstain from drugs and alcohol and be subject to random testing.

He was also sentenced to pay restitution, but the amount is unknown at this time.

Drake Bigler’s parents said there were mixed feelings and some frustration about the sentence and the plea bargain process.

“There are no winners in this,” Brad Bigler said after Friday’s court hearing.

“It just seems sparse; it doesn’t seem like the punishment fit the crime,” Heather Bigler said.

Emotions ran high at the sentencing hearing. Friends, family and other supporters for the Biglers crowded into the courtroom, many wearing SMSU apparel or shirts with Drake Bigler’s name printed on the back. So many people were standing along the walls of the courtroom that Judge Charles Glasrud offered observers seats in the jury box.

The court heard five victim impact statements, including statements from Brad and Heather Bigler, and Heather’s grandmother, 74-year-old Sharon Schuler, of Granite Falls. Members of the Bigler family wept as they described the collision that killed Drake Bigler and critically injured Brad Bigler and Schuler.

On July 28, Schoen’s truck crossed the center line into oncoming traffic on Minnesota Highway 29 near Starbuck in Pope County, and crashed into the passenger side of the Bigler’s SUV. The force of the collision took off the entire passenger side of the vehicle and forced the SUV into a ditch.

Brad Bigler, his wife Heather, who was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and Heather’s grandmother, 74-year-old Sharon Schuler, of Granite Falls, were injured in the crash.

Schoen was not injured. He was alone in the truck.

Although they mentioned their physical injuries and the financial cost of the crash, the main focus of the Biglers’ statements was the pain and grief caused by the loss of Drake.

“The pain was just indescribable,” Heather Bigler told the court.

“Drake was a happy little baby, and his smile just lit up the room,” she said. “Our family went from complete to incomplete in a matter of seconds, because of Mr. Schoen’s horrible decision to drink and drive.”

Members of the Bigler family asked that Schoen be given the maximum sentence for his charges, especially since he had already been convicted of drinking and driving twice, in 2000 and 2005.

“Our family refuses to call this an accident,” said Phil Smith, Heather Bigler’s father. “A mistake repeated three times is no longer a mistake.”

“I don’t know if I need redemption for Drake, but I do want to protect other people,” Brad Bigler told the court.

Bigler said despite the trauma of Drake’s death, and the frustrations the family has felt with the legal process, “We’re not going to walk around with anger.” There would be a second chance for Schoen, he said. “I hope he can make something of that.”

Schoen appeared in court in custody, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. He was quiet through nearly all of the hearing, but public defender Jeffrey Kuhn said Schoen had accepted responsibility for his actions.

“He knows what he did was wrong,” Kuhn said. “He’s not asking for leniency here today.”

Schoen apologized on the stand Friday.

“I’ve thought about what to say a hundred times, but I’m not sure what to say that wouldn’t make matters worse,” Schoen said. “I want to apologize to the Bigler family . . . I’m ashamed of my actions.”

Schoen pleaded guilty in December to three counts of criminal vehicular operation. Schoen’s plea deal included an admission of a blood-alcohol content of 0.32 percent, four times Minnesota’s legal limit.

Brad Bigler, who suffered extensive injuries to his ribs and scapula, has since returned to his coaching duties at SMSU after a lengthy hospital stay and rehabilitation. He has been part of the Mustangs basketball program for 14 years as a player, and assistant and head coach. Heather Bigler has resumed her job as a counselor at Marshall Middle School.

The Biglers also said they were grateful to see the people gathered at the courthouse Friday.

“Through this whole process, we’ve been thankful for the support we’ve had. We never took it for granted,” Brad Bigler said. That level of connection to people in the community, he said, “is part of what makes Marshall special.”