Dressed in a blue shirt with a big, white kitty on the front, 3-year-old Danika Packard sat on the courtroom bench eating cereal from a plastic baggy and smiling at anyone who caught her attention.
The happy little girl gave no indication of the horror she and her parents endured last year when a drunken driver crashed into her father, Danny Packard, as he rode his bicycle, and then ran over Danika, who was riding in a specially equipped trailer. The impact disintegrated Danika’s helmet as the driver, Timmy Ngoc Nguyen, 23, kept driving and returned to the apartment where he and fellow Gonzaga University law students were taking part in a “Beer Olympics.”
“Her helmet exploded. I just put my hands on her and started praying for her,” said Danika’s mom, Tracy Packard, who witnessed the July 21 collision as she rode her bicycle behind. “I thought she was going to die.”
Danika’s fractured skull and wrist have since healed, and Nguyen, 23, pleaded guilty Monday to hit and run and vehicular assault. A plea deal, accepted by Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins, included a one-year prison sentence – more than the maximum punishment of nine months behind bars.
“I want to say how truly sorry I am,” Nguyen said as he addressed the Packard family. “I am truly shameful. I am taking steps so that this will never happen again.”
His defense attorney, Jill Gannon-Nagle, asked Tompkins to consider her client’s aspirations as part of the totality of the case. She noted that her client was also on medication that day for depression.
“Becoming a lawyer is his dream career,” Gannon-Nagle said. “He’s scared out of his mind to go to jail, let alone prison. Yet, he is taking responsibility.”
Tompkins also ordered Nguyen to pay more than $37,500 in restitution and implored him to continue his studies upon release.
“This is one of those events where the law is not particularly well-suited to provide proper resolution,” Tompkins said. “This is going to take a long, long time.”
The judge said she hopes the Packard family will someday get to the point where they can get back on bicycles “and this little one will be a ball of fire.”
But Danny Packard, who suffered minor injuries, said the psychological damage lingers.
He said he was looking directly into Nguyen’s eyes as the law student sped around a corner on East Maringo Drive and crossed into the wrong lane of traffic before clipping his bike and striking the trailer hauling Danika.
“He didn’t even hit his brakes,” Danny Packard said. “He hit me and ran over (Danika) and just kept going.”
Brian and Jenifer Piper and their kids were driving directly behind the fleeing vehicle and saw the collision. She jumped out to help the Packards as her husband drove to pursue Nguyen.
“It was such a life-changing event for me,” Piper said. “We still drive by it and I can replay everything in my head. My daughter doesn’t want to ride a bike because she is so fearful.”
Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Thornburg said as deputies raced to the scene, they mistakenly were searching for Piper’s red pickup. But Piper confronted Nguyen at the nearby Pasadena Apartments and deputies responded there to take Nguyen into custody.
Thornburg spoke to a handful of Gonzaga students at the party who were holding the unsanctioned “Beer Olympics” to blow off steam. The students said they did have designated drivers, but Nguyen slipped out of the party unnoticed just prior to the collision.
When deputies arrived on scene, Nguyen “wasn’t all that polite, throwing his law-student status around,” Thornburg said. Nguyen started throwing up, which continued inside the squad car. Blood tests indicated that Nguyen was about three times the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent.
Defense attorney Mark Vovos testified on behalf of Nguyen, who had been working as an intern at Vovos’ law firm. Vovos noted that Nguyen is already $120,000 in debt from school loans after three years of law school.
“I know what I have seen him go through is punishment,” Vovos said. “It will be with him for the rest of his life.”
Danny Packard said that day, which started with the family biking to Pasadena Elementary so Danika could play on the playground, has shaped his family, too.
“We can’t get back on our bikes,” he said.