No Contest, but Plenty of Despair — (The Milwaukee Journal)

SSRI Ed note: Teen on Prozac drives out of her lane causing accident that kills 3. She is charged, pleads no contest.

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The Milwaukee Journal

by Jessica McBride, the Journal Staff

Nov 4, 1994

WAUKESHA – Three names were read Friday to 19-year-old Megan Cherne – the names of each Eagle teenager who died when her Ford Escort veered into oncoming traffic during the early morning of January 29.

Paul D. Wilton, 18.   Olivia Mercado, 15.   Earnest Loefer, 19.   Three friends returning home after a night of bowling.

Cherne wept softly as Waukesha County Circuit Judge Marianne E. Becker read the negligent homicide charges against her.

Each time, Cherne pleaded “no contest” in a quiet voice as her parents sat in the front row of the courtroom in tears.   The friends and family of the victims filled several rows on the other side of the room.

Cherne, of Germantown, who was 18 when the crash occurred, also pleaded guilty to injuring Charles Zindars of Palmyra, the driver of the Dodge Daytona she struck.   She pleaded no contest to four traffic citations for recklessly endangering safety.

Altogether, she faces seven years in prison and more than $30,000 in fines when she is sentenced January 10.    District Attorney Paul E Bucher indicated his office would be “lobbying hard for incarceration” at sentencing.   He does not plan to specify a length of time.

Cherne, obviously in great distress, was accompanied in court by a clinical psychologist.  Cherne has begun taking Prozac, a prescription antidepressant.   Her attorney said she remembers little of the accident.

Detectives say Cherne had attended a party in Whitewater before the crash, which occurred at about 2:00 a.m.  Tests showed her blood alcohol level was 0.05%, which is less than the legal limit of 0.10%.   Because she was under 18, she was required to maintain absolute sobriety.

Cherne was driving her Escort east on Highway 59 that morning.  Two groups of Eagle area teenagers who had been bowling in Wakesha were in separate cars westbound on Highway 59.   Cherne crossed the centre line and sideswiped a Dodge Omni containing the first carload of teenagers, grazing the driver’s side.

She then collided head-on with the car behind them, the DAytona driven by Zindars, about a half-mile west of Highway 83.    Cherne was critically injured and flown by helicopter to Doyne hospital in Wauwatosa where she recovered.

Car Burst Into Flames

At the crash scene, the car burst into flames.  Loefer was pinned tight inside the auto and Wilton was pulled from it by his brother, who was riding in the first car.  Mercado was pulled from the car by her friends.

Paty Kostroski, held the dying Mercado in her arms.  The girl was three weeks short of her 16th birthday.

“She gets to spend Christmas and New Years with her family” Kostroski said after Friday’s hearing.   “Obviously she has to live with it, but she does have her life.”

Victim’s Mother wants Maximum

Mercado’s mother, Pam Turk, was the only family member who gave a statement to the news media.  She said she believed Cherne deserved the maximum sentence.

“I must say it doesn;t feel like it’s been nine months,” she said, at one point breaking down.   “It seems like it happened yesterday.   She (Olivia) is missed by a lot of people. My son goes to the same school.  She was my best friend.”

Bucher said the only difference between a no contest plea and a guilty plea is that a no contest plea cannot be used as an admission of guilt in civil litigation.  But many of the families have already settled with Cherne’s insurance company, he said.

Kohn said he personally would have preferred the case go to trial, but the decision to enter the plea was Cherne’s.