The man who struck and killed a Granite City teenager in a hit-and-run car accident has been sentenced to four years in prison, although he may be released by October 2016.
Daniel Embrey, 16, and two friends were walking along Edwardsville Road near 14th Street in Granite City at about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2014. According to witnesses, the car struck the three teenagers and kept going without stopping. Daniel was taken to Gateway Regional Medical Center in Granite City, where he was pronounced dead. One of his friends was also injured.
Son Thanh Nguyen, 26, of Madison, was charged with failure to report an accident involving personal injury or death, a Class 1 felony. The police investigation had led them to Nguyen’s car, which showed signs of the damage.
Nguyen pleaded guilty in an open plea, which means there was no promise of leniency in sentencing. Nguyen faced a sentence ranging from probation to 15 years in prison.
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The prosecution asked for nine years incarceration, while the defense asked for the nine months already served and probation. Madison County Associate Judge Neil Schroeder sentenced him to four years in prison with two years of supervised release. Nguyen will receive credit for time served, and will be eligible for early release based on good behavior in October 2016.
"Nothing is going to make (Daniel Embrey’s) family whole," Schroeder said. He said he agreed with the defense that even if Nguyen had stopped, it would not have sped up emergency assistance for Daniel. However, he said, "you committed a horrific crime that has caused immeasurable damage to many people."
Daniel’s family declined their right to testify, but asked the prosecutor to read their statement aloud. It said that Daniel has now missed the birth of his young niece, and will never become a state police officer, which was his ambition.
"You not only took his life, but left a hole in our lives that cannot be filled," read prosecutor John Fischer. "You did not have the courage to stop and help a child... The pain we feel today is as strong as the day you took his life."
Nguyen apologized to the family. "I don’t expect them to ever forgive me," Nguyen said. "I pray for them every night. I am truly sorry for everything I have done. I wish I could take it all back."
But Fischer said Nguyen’s own statements showed why he fled: He had been drinking, but by the time he was caught, the alcohol was gone from his system.
"He had every opportunity to stop and help Daniel Embrey, but he didn’t," Fischer said. "He was only concerned about himself."
Defense attorney William Carroll said there was no evidence that Nguyen was drunk, only driving on a revoked license. "This is a case of someone who left the scene of an accident, not a homicide," Carroll said. "He needs to get back to work and take care of his family."
Nguyen’s mother, Tammy Guerrero-Zavaleta, testified that she has been caring for two of his three young children, ages 3 and 2, while he has been in custody. The mother of his two older children relinquished her rights and is no longer involved, according to testimony. Guerrero-Zavaleta has been diagnosed with cancer and will be undergoing treatment, so caring for the children will be difficult, she said.
Bonnie Levo, the court-appointed guardian for the children, said she was concerned they might end up in foster care if the grandmother cannot care for them.
Nguyen’s fiance, Jessica Niemeyer, said their infant was born while he’s been incarcerated for the last nine months, and she is currently a stay-at-home mother. She said she cannot support the three children without Nguyen, as she is living with her parents while spending time at Guerrero-Zavaleta’s house with her future stepchildren. "Son has come to be a better person," she said. "He thinks about his actions. … He is a kinder, gentler person. He’s had a reality check, that actions have consequences."
But Fischer said that while it might be a hardship on his family, at least Nguyen’s three children are alive, while Daniel is dead. "There was no sympathy that night," Fischer said. "There was nothing but me, me, me." He also said that while Nguyen has no prior felonies, he has four pages full of traffic offenses.
"If you hit someone with your car, no matter what speed you’re going… society demands that you stop, figure out what happened, and try to lend some assistance," Fischer said. "This is your responsibility as a human being, and he ignored that."
Schroeder said the children have been cared for appropriately for the last nine months and there is a sufficient family structure to care for the children. “There’s no doubt that (Nguyen’s) incarceration causes his family hardship, but I can’t find that it would be excessive hardship," he said.
Daniel’s mother, Angela Trejo, said while she is still hurting, she has found closure now that the court proceedings are over — and she has forgiven Nguyen, and feels sorry for his young children, who were present in the courtroom. “I hope he does what he’s supposed to do when he gets out, and takes care of those babies,” she said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.