WASHINGTON – A woman who injured nearly 50 people when she plowed her car through a street festival last summer while high on crack cocaine was sentenced to 25 years in prison Tuesday.
Tonya Bell, 30, apologized to the victims, many of whom testified in District of Columbia Superior Court about how their broken bones, deep scars and psychological wounds from the June 2 incident have had a profound impact on their lives.
"I'm so sorry for the pain I caused," said Bell, who quivered at the defense table and wept often during the half-hour hearing in front of a full courtroom. "It haunts me."
Bell, of Oxon Hill, Md., pleaded guilty in October to multiple counts of aggravated assault while armed and assault with a dangerous weapon, along with a charge of cruelty to children. Judge Herbert Dixon gave Bell the maximum sentence allowed under the plea agreement she reached with prosecutors.
According to prosecutors, Bell had gone on a crack binge in the 24 hours leading up to the Unifest street festival in southeast Washington, consuming $700 worth of the drug. She then placed her 7-year-old daughter in the back seat of her station wagon before heading toward the festival.
At speeds that sometimes reached 70 mph, Bell made two passes through the area, knocking people to the side and under the car as she went. A police officer who tried to pull her over said she was laughing as she drove. The Volvo station wagon was finally stopped when officers crashed their scooters under the vehicle and a man jumped through the window to put the transmission in park.
No one was killed, but 49 people were injured, including two police officers. One man, Arnold Jefferson, was found dead on a Washington street in September, after a lengthy hospitalization for head injuries. His family said he was depressed and believes his death was related to the accident, though authorities have not classified it as such.
In court Tuesday, some of those who were injured described being dragged for several blocks under the car, thrown into the air by the force of the impact or felt their bodies crumple as the car struck them. Many went on to suffer through long hospitalizations, lingering pains and injuries that limited their ability to work or pursue their life passions. Most said they felt sorry for Bell.
Antwan Williams, 49, has had four surgeries on his wounded leg and still suffers migraines and flashbacks. He hopes to avoid another painful operation on the leg.
"I'd just like to ask her why she didn't stop when she hit the first person," Williams told the judge.
Jefferson's fiancee, Tonya Walker-Allen, said Bell hit her entire family, including her son, daughter and 1-year-old grandson, whose stroller was swept under the Volvo.
"My daughter had to watch her father go 30 feet in the air and land on his head," Walker-Allen said.
Bell's attorney said she had lived a tortured life, with abusive and absent parents. She was pregnant for the first time at 14, witnessed the death of her great-grandmother and mother in a house fire, and eventually became hooked on drugs. After eight criminal convictions, five of them for felonies, Bell appeared to have righted her life somewhat in 2004 when she was in a drug treatment program. But she later became involved in an abusive relationship, which precipitated a drug relapse.
Bell said she had attended Unifest as a child, and told the victims in court that she asks God to "bless you back to health."
"I am horrified I ruined such a blessed event," she said.