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Update on a Past Post About a Teen’s Death in Buffalo

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Some time ago I wrote about the tragic death of a Buffalo High School soccer player when he was hit head on by a vehicle that crossed the center line. The posts set off a exchange of comments that was heartbreaking:

Drunk Driver Charged With Killing Buffalo Teen, Mike Bryant | November 29, 2009 9:17 PM

Wright County Head On Collision Kills Teenage Driver, Mike Bryant | November 24, 2009 8:01 PM

A reader followed up recently with the following email to me from the Minneapolis Tribune:

Body: Drunken driver who killed teen goes to prison
Todd Lifto was speeding and had no headlights on when he smashed into J.J. Kramnic’s car in 2009.

By DAVID CHANEN, Star Tribune

For more than an hour, Todd Lifto stood in handcuffs staring down at the courtroom floor.

He listened as, one by one, friends and relatives of Jonathon Kramnic, the 17-year-old soccer star Lifto killed in a 2009 drunken driving accident, stepped forward and spoke. Each wore a T-shirt that said "Justice for J.J."

Kramnic’s grandmother called Lifto selfish for getting behind the wheel drunk. Four of Kramnic’s cousins said they now feel guilty opening Christmas presents without J.J. around. The teen’s dad believes Lifto is headed for hell.

As he handed down a nearly five-year sentence Monday, Wright County District Judge Geoffrey Tenney said the punishment was insignificant because Lifto took away a life with unlimited possibilities. After the hearing, Assistant County Attorney Brian Lutes admitted he had a hard time maintaining his composure while the impact statements were delivered.

"We can all relate to what they must be going through," he said.

Lifto, 45, received the maximum sentence allowed under the state’s sentencing guidelines. His parents sat in the back row of the filled-to-capacity courtroom in Buffalo, waving goodbye to Lifto after the hearing.

Choking back tears, Lifto read a short statement saying he wished he could trade places with Kramnic. "From the bottom of my heart, I’m truly sorry," Lifto said.

The teen’s family has waited more than a year to see Lifto to prison. Kramnic had just dropped off his girlfriend and was driving to a friend’s house a few days before Thanksgiving in 2009 when Lifto drove his pickup into Kramnic’s lane in St. Michael. He was speeding and didn’t have his headlights on.

DWI arrest 2 months before

Lifto’s blood alcohol level was 0.27 percent, more than three times the legal limit to drive. He pleaded guilty in December to felony criminal vehicular homicide. Two months before the accident, Lifto was charged with drunken driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.20 percent. His left foot was amputated after the fatal accident.

Monday’s hearing started a half-hour late because Tenney wanted to read the 10 impact statements submitted by friends and family. Sue Hoglund, Kramnic’s grandmother, read a letter from her son, who had to quit his teaching job because he was so devastated by the teen’s death. He doesn’t want to forgive Lifto, but said he needs to move forward.

Hoglund talked about the graduation day at Buffalo High School that Kramnic never attended, an empty chair with a cap and gown put in his place. It tore her apart when her 4-year-old granddaughter wanted to know why somebody wanted to hurt her J.J. so bad. Half the school didn’t show up for class the day he died, and 2,000 people attended his funeral.

"He did more good in a single day than most people do in an entire lifetime," Hoglund said. "Why didn’t our system work to stop Lifto? The police arrest and arrest and the courts release and release."

Since Kramnic’s death, she and other relatives of his have worked extensively to raise public awareness of drunken driving.

Kramnic’s four cousins took turns sharing memories in court, saying "there is always a cloud hanging over us."

Jeri Loberg, a longtime friend, showed two pictures to the judge before her statement. The first was a smiling picture of J.J., "the person I know and love." The second picture was his gravesite, "the J.J. I visit every Saturday morning."

"This isn’t about him or about us. It’s about justice," she said. "It’s all just so sad and senseless."

The last impact statement was read by Kramnic’s father, retelling the story of J.J.’s last hours in the hospital. He was resuscitated twice and lost 14 gallons of blood, he said.

"Nothing prepares you to pick out a casket for your child," said Jon Kramnic.

Many in the courtroom were sobbing during his statement, especially when he said Lifto murdered his son with a weapon of alcohol and 4,000 pounds of steel.

"I don’t believe he’s sorry," he said. "He may be sorry he lost a foot. He may be sorry he will be spending time in jail and not be able to drink."

Kramnic said he’s not the same person as before his son’s death.

"I know he [Lifto] has a son. I get to spend my father’s day visiting my son at the cemetery," he said. "I wish he could feel the pain I feel every day."

For all of those families and friends that were harmed by this tragedy, I hope this small amount of justice does give them some solace.