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Thursday, October 19, 2000

Driver in fatal
hit-and-run gets
10 years

Ricardo Rodriguez-Pantoja
will be deported to Mexico after
completing his sentence

By Gary Kubota

WAILUKU -- After the man who killed her son was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the mother of slain Maui police officer Gene V. Williams said Hawaii's drunken-driving laws are too lenient and should be toughened.

Colleen Williams, a New Orleans resident, said two people were sentenced to life in prison in Alabama in traffic deaths.

"I think that's the kind of law Hawaii should have," she said after her son's killer, Ricardo Rodriguez-Pantoja, received his sentence for first-degree negligent homicide yesterday in Maui Circuit Court.

Police investigators say Rodriguez-Pantoja was legally drunk and his pickup truck was traveling at least 80 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone when his truck rear-ended a car that then burst into flames.

Williams, 38, pinned under the burning car, died instantly.

Williams was directing traffic at a construction site north of Kaanapali shortly before 3 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1999, when the crash occurred.

Rodriguez-Pantoja, an illegal immigrant who had no driver's license or insurance, fled but was later arrested near the crash.

Deputy Prosecutor Davelynn Tengan said Rodriguez-Pantoja ignored large construction signs warning motorists to slow down and plowed into the car.

During sentencing, Rodriguez-Pantoja apologized to the Williams family. "I am truly sorry, as God knows," he said.

Williams' wife, Dee, said her husband's death has torn her life apart. She asked for the maximum sentence. "I hope Mr. Pantoja never suffers the way I have," she said.

Defense attorney Reinette Cooper said Rodriguez-Pantoja was working 16 hours a day and sending money to his widowed mother and his wife and three children in Mexico.

His mother, Carmen, said she wanted her son to have a shorter sentence because of the difficulty it would present to his wife and children.

Rodriguez-Pantoja pleaded no contest to first-degree negligent homicide on Aug. 17 in return for the prosecution dismissing the manslaughter charge. A charge of manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and negligent homicide, 10 years.

Judge Artemio Baxa allowed Rodriguez-Pantoja, 26, to use the 14 months he spent in jail awaiting trial to be applied as time served in prison.

Prosecutor Richard Bissen said he will be deported to Mexico after he completes his prison sentence.

Williams, the fourth Maui police officer to die in the line of duty, was born in Jackson, Miss., and went to high school in New Orleans. He moved to Maui several years ago after marrying his wife, Dee, whose grandparents live in Hana.

Police officers noted that Williams frequently commented on how much he loved his job.

Williams' mother said she called her son "my sunshine."

"He had a smile on his face from the time he woke. Because of this death, my sunshine will never light my life. Now when I think of him, tears pour and I can't stop."

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