Butte woman draws prison sentence for vehicular homicide

Thursday, July 1, 2021
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Sunday Gardner-Ard (Montana DOC Photo)

A Butte woman was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week for causing the death of a passenger in her car while driving intoxicated and on marijuana on I-90 last summer. Sunday Gardner-Ard, 45, made no excuses for her actions on the day of July 15, 2020, when she rolled a car that she had stolen from a relative, killing passenger Jerry Lee Deal, a 57-year-old hitchhiker from Morgensen, N.C.

Gardner-Ard’s blood alcohol content was tested at .198 and she also had marijuana in her system at the time of the crash. Investigators believe that Gardner-Ard was travelling 106 mph when she lost control of a car, according to court documents.

“It took me months to sleep after this accident…I would trade my life for his,” said Gardner-Ard, crying as she spoke from the Gallatin County Detention Facility last Thursday.

Twenty-second Judicial District Judge Matt Wald said Gardner-Ard’s criminal history “gives the court pause” regarding the joint sentencing agreement in the case. But ultimately, Wald determined it was an appropriate sentence, noting that Gardner-Ard had “almost immediately” taken responsibility for the crimes.

For one felony count of negligent vehicular homicide, Wald imposed a 30-year term to the Montana Women’s Prison, with 15 of those years suspended. For the crime felony theft (a third offense), Gardner-Ard was given a 5-year prison sentence. The sentences will run concurrently, which amounts to 15 years of incarceration and another 15 years of probation.

Wald said the sentence provides punishment for causing a death, takes into account a lengthy criminal history and provides Gardner-Ard with a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gardner-Ard’s previous criminal history dates back to 2004 and includes felony convictions of criminal mischief, partner/family member assault, two counts of burglary, theft and criminal endangerment, all in Gallatin County, according to the Montana Department of Corrections.

THE CASE

At 9:25 p.m. on July 15, 2020, a motorist called 911 to report a single-vehicle crash in the eastbound lane of I-90, near mile marker 407.

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Brennen Plucker arrived on scene to find several Stillwater County Sheriff’s deputies and Columbus Rescue Fire crews on scene with a crashed 2009 Pontiac G6, according to court documents. Trooper Plucker saw tire marks west of the crash site that left the road to the south, and a large amount of debris on the hill to the south.

The trooper noted that there was damage to all sides of the vehicle and that the rear side tire was missing. The roof of the occupant compartment was crushed down to the bottom of the windows and “it was skewed to the driver’s side,” according to court documents.

The passenger had been seatbelted, but the belt was cut when firefighters removed his body. A medical examiner determined the passenger — a man — died of positional asphyxia and blunt force injuries sustained in the crash, according to court documents.

Gardner-Ard was removed from the vehicle and placed in an ambulance and taken to the Stillwater Billings Clinic.

Troopers, deputies and EMS workers were searching the surrounding area and hillside as Gardner-Ard initially said that three people had been in the car. Among the debris were children’s toys and clothing.

When interviewed about the crash the following day, Gardner-Ard told the trooper that she did not know the man in the car with her and that she had picked him up hitchhiking near Butte.

When asked what caused the crash, she said, “they hit something and then wrecked,” according to court documents.

She was unable to remember anything else about the crash.

She refused a voluntary blood sample, but one was drawn after the trooper obtained a warrant — partially based on her two prior DUI convictions. In addition to alcohol, that blood test also showed 6.8 ml of Lorazepam and the presence of Mirtazapine.

Other motorists estimated Gardner-Ard was travelling approximately 95 mph on the night of the crash. One motorist said she sped past her and then lost control on the rumbles trips and crashed.

An accident re-creation investigation conducted by MHP revealed that she was travelling as fast as 106 mph as she tried to pass another vehicle in the seconds leading up to the crash, then hit her brakes for one second, according to court documents.

Investigators also learned that earlier in the day, Gardner-Ard had been with family members in Butte and while at the YMCA, police were called when Gardner-Ard reportedly became angry and yelled at family members and others while drinking what was believed to be alcohol in a Gatorade bottle, according to court documents.

Before police arrived, she stole a family member’s car.