MADERA – The Madera man responsible for the deaths of Gary and Laura Smalz in May, 2012, was sentenced today in Madera Superior Court.
On Feb. 19, Gary Ragsdale, 43, entered a plea of “no contest” to one count of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and one special allegation of personally inflicting great bodily injury in the commission of a felony.
On Monday, May 5, Ragsdale was sentenced to 7 years in prison – 4 years for gross vehicular manslaughter in the death of Gary Smalz, and 3 years for the special allegation of causing great body injury in the death of his wife Laura.
Last Monday, the defense asked the court to strike the special allegation charge based on a recent case in Orange County, but the judge found that case did not apply to the facts and circumstances of this case, and ruled against the motion to dismiss the charge.
On May 19, 2012, Gary and Laura Smalz were riding their Harley Davidson motorcycle on Road 600 near Road 31, when Ragsdale, whose blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, turned his Dodge pickup into the driveway of a business, and directly into the path of the bike.
Though Gary Smalz was a motorcycle safety instructor and reportedly an excellent rider, witnesses said there was nothing he could have done to avoid colliding with the truck. People on the scene rushed to help and the ambulance arrived within minutes, but both succumbed to their injuries, Laura at the site of the crash, and Gary later in the hospital.
Ragsdale was arrested at the scene for suspicion of drunk driving. He was released the following day after posting bail, and has been free pending trial, but the trial date was vacated when he entered his no contest plea.
Gary and Laura Smalz had been married just four years. After the deaths of their significant others, the two fell in love and started their lives together.
Gary was considered a prodigy by his family, and had studied at the renowned Julliard School of Music. He was well known throughout the mountain area for his skills on the piano, guitar, banjo and many other musical instruments. He was also a local entrepreneur who ran his own business, Smalz Satellite, for nearly 25 years.
Laura was an art importer who loved creating art and hand crafted items in her studio. One of her great loves was taking road trips on their bike with Gary to festivals around the area.
But on that spring evening in 2012, when they were just 10 miles from their Ahwahnee home, their lives were cut short due to this tragic incident. They left behind four children and four grandchildren.
Nearly 50 people packed the courtroom this afternoon as friends and family members for both the victims and the defendant came forward to share just how this tragedy has impacted their lives. They also sent an estimated 60 letters to the judge in advance of his decision.
One by one they stepped up to share their statements, the Smalz family pleading for the maximum punishment, and the Ragsdale family asking for mercy for someone they described as a good man who made a tragic mistake.
Gary Smalz’s sister April says she is still in disbelief that they are gone, and that she will never see her brother again. She feels that Ragsdale’s plea of no contest is just another example of him avoiding taking responsibility for his actions.
“I don’t care what a person does after the fact, like counseling or going to AA,” April told the court. “You still have to pay by serving time in prison. When he comes home, he can start a new life. Gary and Laura will never have that opportunity.”
April also asked the court to order reimbursement for funeral and burial costs.
Marilyn and Donald Root, Gary’s mother and step-father, said the deaths have left an emotional wound on their hearts that years of time will never heal, and encouraged the judge to impose the maximum sentence on Mr. Ragsdale.
“We may someday be able to get over the shock of their terrible deaths, but we will never get over the vicious and senseless manner in which they died,” said Donald. “Only with the maximum sentence will we gain any sense of peace.”
Roxanne Smalz, Gary’s daughter, read a letter from her great-aunt Delores Sammartino.
“At the holidays, there are always two empty chairs sitting there,” the letter said. “Gary was a father, grandfather, nephew, uncle, brother and son. Giving the man who killed him probation would be a horrible injustice. How much are Gary and Laura’s lives worth?
“It is horribly unfair that the defendant spent one night in jail to sober up, and then went home to his wife, children and the rest of his family. They get to see him everyday, but we have to visit a grave site to see Gary and Laura.”
Some members of the Smalz family felt unable to read their statements aloud due to the overwhelming emotions in the courtroom, but all letters were submitted to the judge in advance of the hearing today.
There was also deep emotion from the friends and family of Gary Ragsdale. The defendant’s younger brother said he was sorry his brother’s actions had brought so much pain, anger and grief to so many people, including his own family.
“I don’t presume to understand the pain the Smalz family is going through,” said Daryl Ragsdale, “but every night we pray for God’s grace and healing. Gary made a horrible error in judgement, and he is remorseful. I have personally held him as he sobbed uncontrollably and cried out for forgiveness.”
Daryl told the court that people have banged on restaurant windows and called his brother a murderer in front of their children.
“He is suffering the life-altering consequences of those who drink and drive, and is humbly submitting to the law and to this court. He has used this incident to witness to people in hopes of shielding another family from this pain.
“My brother is a good man. He’s never been in trouble and is looked up to by co-workers and family. God forgives us, but doesn’t absolve us of the consequences. Gary is not a threat to society. Prison won’t reform him or give him the opportunity to share his story with others.”
Gary Ragsdale’s boss David Casner, a single father, said that Ragsdale has been an exemplary employee for many years, that he helped keep his son out of trouble and counseled his daughter after a devastating accident.
“Though some say otherwise, Gary has terrible remorse. He does believe consequences come to us because of our actions. He is not smug, only full of sorrow for the family. He is a good member of society and his family needs him.”
Two members of Mr. Ragsdale’s Alcoholics Anonymous group also spoke on his behalf, saying that he has been attending every single meeting since the accident.
“Gary is sincere about never wanting to take another drink,” said one member. “He is a completely different person, is extremely remorseful and cries whenever this subject comes up. He will have to carry this the rest of his life. His participation with us has done more for his rehabilitation than any prison would do.”
Even someone who didn’t know either family took it upon himself to stand and be heard.
Eric Henderson, who was in court on another matter, listened to the proceedings and got up to tell the judge that the law should apply the same to everybody.
“The fact that the defendant’s family supports him is great, but they should have been giving him that support before he drank and drove,” said Henderson.
Mr. Ragsdale did not address the court or the victims’ family, but his attorney, Roger Nuttall, said he wanted to clear up an important point, and speak to the “no contest” plea from a legal perspective.
“By entering a no contest plea, Gary wasn’t denying responsibility,” said Nuttall. “He did so pursuant to my advice, because as an attorney, I deal in facts. If he had entered a guilty plea, that act could have interfered with the liability insurance that would go to the Smalz family. We didn’t want to do anything that would diminish that coverage, so the Smalz’s would receive every penny.”
Nuttall then made a final plea for consideration of the mitigating factors and asked the court for jail time and probation.
“He has no known record of criminality. He is suffering extreme remorse. He can’t change what happened but has live an exemplary life trying to make as much reparation as possible.
“We understand how much the victim’s family is suffering. It is human nature that when someone hurts that much, they want someone else to hurt. But it won’t bring back the victims. This is a fine young man, and there, but for the grace of God, go so many, including some sitting in this room. His life deserves to be rebuilt, it’s worthy of a grant of probation.”
Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Levy disagreed, stating that if the defendant hadn’t been drunk that day, two people would not have died.
“County jail and probation is not an appropriate level of punishment where two people were killed,” said Levy. “He may share his story in hopes of helping others, but if that story ends with, ‘…and then I didn’t go to prison for very long,’ it’s not a deterrent to society, knowing there will be no significant punishment if you commit these acts.”
Judge Mitchell Rigby, after listening the victim impact statements, reviewing the Probation Report and hearing arguments from both sides, sentenced Gary Ragsdale to 7 years in prison. The judge also ordered him “remanded forthwith,” and deputies handcuffed him and escorted him from the courtroom, leaving only tears on both sides of the aisle and two families, each dealing with tremendous loss.