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OUR VIEW: A harsh price to pay for drinking and driving

Two men learned in Pierce County Circuit Court last month the price they will have to pay for their actions, which cost each to lose a friend to death. Those deaths were easily preventable, if only they hadn’t driven while drunk.

These two men will have to live with their decisions the rest of their lives, which will not be easy. Both men expressed remorse during court proceedings. It will not be easy for them, and they will probably think of it every day. The families of the victims and the accused will have to live with it every day as well.

In the case of Patrick A. Puhalla, 49, of Bayport, Minn., he pleaded guilty May 26 to one count of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and one count of causing injury by intoxicated boat operation in the death of his friend, David J. Riley.

A plea deal presented in court calls for Puhalla to spend one year in jail on home monitoring and five years on probation. The deal also stipulates that Puhalla attend a victim impact panel on the anniversary of Riley’s death and spend 10 hours a month performing community service. Puhalla will be sentenced Aug. 12.

He was accused in a criminal complaint of having a blood­alcohol level of 0.11 at the time of the June 5, 2013, crash that killed Riley, of New Richmond, while the pair and another friend were boating on the St. Croix River near Kinnickinnic State Park.

Puhalla admitted to investigators that he didn’t have a chance to grab the boat’s steering wheel as it crashed into land.

Riley, 40, was pronounced dead on scene. He served as harbormaster at Windmill Marina in Afton, Minn.

Connor C. Johnson was sentenced to six months in jail and four years of probation May 26 after pleading guilty to reckless driving causing great bodily injury, hit-and-run causing injury and OWI-second in the Aug. 9, 2014 death of his friend, Nick Rhiel of Ellsworth.

According to a criminal complaint, the two men had been drinking together. Johnson retrieved his vehicle on Kruger Lane in Ellsworth and tried to drive it away. He locked Rhiel out of the vehicle, but Rhiel climbed on the roof of the car and rode it as it drove off. 

The complaint states Johnson steered the vehicle hard while driving 34­39 mph, creating a “critical speed yaw” that sent Rhiel onto the pavement. Johnson drove off while Rhiel laid on the street.

Rhiel died the next day of his injuries. In court, Johnson expressed extreme sadness to the Rhiel family, apologizing for his part in Rhiel’s death.

“Nick was a good friend of mine,” he said while trying not to cry. “I did not try to hurt him.”

What is the point of retelling these sad stories? Simply this: summer is a time of celebrations, barbecues, graduation parties, many of which have alcohol flowing and readily available.

If you’re going to partake in alcoholic beverages, do not drive. Have a talk with your teenage drivers about the dangers of not only underage drinking, but driving while drunk. Accidents caused by drunk driving are easily preventable: just don’t get behind the wheel. Otherwise your life could be changed forever, like the lives of the men above.

The Pierce County Herald originally published this editorial.

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