Emotional hearing ends with nine year sentence


Michael Vanwagner is not a likeable man, based on his criminal record. And when eight people got up to talk about the promising 16-year-old Brooklyn Center boy he killed while driving drunk, his image suffered even more in comparison.

After his defense attorneys explained all of the mental illnesses and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder from which he suffered, Hennepin County District Court Judge Jay Quam sentenced Vanwagner, 25, of Coon Rapids to 108 months in prison on Friday. That was an upward departure from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, which called for 67 to 93 months for the criminal vehicular homicide counts to which he pleaded guilty.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Justin Wesley had asked for the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Judge Quam sentenced Vanwagner to nine years, noting that he spared the family the pain of a trial by pleading guilty. He acknowledged the terrible problems Vanwagner has had since childhood but said his behavior has put innocent lives at risk.

“It’s not all on us,” Judge Quam told him. “That is what (mental health) commitment is all about, that’s what probation is all about. We have to rely on you to use those tools. The fact that you didn’t caused the tragedy we have all been talking about today.”

In the early afternoon of July 22, Vanwagner struck a car on Minnesota 252 near 85th Avenue North in Brooklyn Park. Both cars pulled over, but then Vanwagner took off, striking the other car again. He then roared away and smashed into the rear of Jason McCarthy’s car as he waited to turn left onto 73rd Avenue North. Both men were hospitalized, and McCarthy died a week later.

McCarthy’s mother, Tara, who cried through most of the court hearing, told Judge Quam that Jason McCarthy was a boy who brought joy into the world.

“I will always be his mom, but I don’t get to mother him anymore,” she told the judge. “I don’t get to watch him grow. I want him (Vanwagner) to change places with my sweet Jason. But I can’t have that. Certainly my life is over, but I have to keep going for my daughter and my husband.”

Other relatives and parents of Jason’s friends painted the picture of a teenager who played baseball and basketball, ran cross-country, played bass guitar in his rock band “The Crackpots” and was an Advanced Placement honors student.
In asking Judge Quam to hand down a lighter sentence of about three years in prison, his defense attorneys discussed how he had been civilly committed twice for being mentally ill with chemical dependency and was bi-polar. Then Vanwagner stood to speak and echoed what Tara McCarthy had said. 

“Words cannot describe how sorry I am for what I have done,” he said, sniffling while he spoke. “I wish it was me who had died.”

Wesley, in asking for the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, pointed out that four aggravating factors allowed the judge to hand down a lengthier sentence. Among those factors were that his blood alcohol was .29, well above the legal limit of .08. He showed a total disregard for the law by driving without a license and without insurance. He also had ignored the conditions of his probation. He had earlier convictions for domestic assault by strangulation, terroristic threats and he had been kicked out of chemical dependency treatment, Wesley said.

“There absolutely is no punishment that fits this egregious crime,” Wesley said.