Driver pleads guilty in hit-and-run that killed UCCS student
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Vincent Fernando Garcia

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A 28-year-old man who pleaded guilty in the hit-and-run death of a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs freshman was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison.

Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit with his hands cuffed and his legs shackled, Vincent Fernando Garcia apologized in court, saying that words couldn’t convey his remorse for the October death of Zachary S. Schlagel.

Nor could his words negate the severity of the crime, said 4th Judicial District Judge Thomas Kelly Kane, noting that Garcia, 28, sped through a red light and into a crosswalk without slowing, hitting Schlagel, 19, and one of his friends as they walked home. Schlagel was thrown more than 100 feet, while the second person suffered minor injuries.

Garcia sped away even as two passengers shouted for him to stop.

“These are crimes. They are not accidents, and they are serious crimes,” said Kane, who also described Schlagel’s death as a “murder.”

The sentencing capped a more than four-hour hearing in which friends and family of Schlagel tearfully recalled him as kind and ambitious. Some lashed out at Garcia in grief, and other refused to speak his name, calling him “that guy.” The victim’s mother, Holly Schlagel, said her husband and younger son were struggling to regain a sense of stability.

“I talk to him when I’m alone,” she said. “I scream. I yell. When I calm myself enough, I talk to him some more.”

The crash occurred at roughly 12:30 a.m. Oct. 29, in a brightly lit intersection across from the university. After Garcia’s truck slammed into the victim, Garcia made the calculated decision to leave without seeking help, said prosecutor Matt Roche. He ended up going home and then driving into the mountains, where he stayed for two days before turning himself in.

In the wake of the tragedy, some students didn’t return to campus, and others asked to withdraw from classes so they could mourn and seek therapy, said UCCS Dean of Students Steve Linhart.

“We had a special young man in Zach, and we lost him,” he said.

Garcia’s court-appointed attorney, John Henderson Jr., said Garcia was arguing with one of the truck’s occupants before the impact, and panicked afterward.

“This was the perfect storm of small mistakes that compounded into bigger mistakes and bigger mistakes,” he said, speaking in terms that Kane later said minimized the crime.

Although Garcia had been at a party prior to the crash, he and his attorney said he hadn’t been drinking.

In meting out the stiff penalty, Kane cited Garcia’s prior offenses, including an earlier driving case in which he was cited with driving 25 to 39 mph over the speed limit in September. He also was accused of harassment and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors, in July 2016, and carrying a concealed weapon and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors, in December 2015.

The sentencing hearing included comments from more than two dozen people on both sides of the case, with the gallery filled to capacity.

Reporter

I cover legal affairs for The Gazette, with an emphasis on the criminal courts. Tips to lance.benzel@gazette.com

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