WOODSTOCK - Olivia Gordon died in a motor vehicle crash near Woodstock almost three years ago on a family trip to the beach.
The man convicted in March of causing the crash that killed the 4-year-old girl now must spend five years and seven months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
Retired Judge Dennis L. Hupp sentenced Greg Lee Peters in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on Wednesday to 10 years in a state penitentiary for involuntary manslaughter. Hupp suspended four years and five months of the term leaving Peters, 44, of Madison Heights, with five years and seven months to serve.
William Allen III represented Peters. Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley prosecuted the case. Allen asked the judge to sentence Peters to probation with no incarceration. Wiseley asked Hupp to sentence Peters to 10 years in prison - the maximum penalty allowed by state code for involuntary manslaughter.
An agreement reached March 27 between Allen and Wiseley calls for Peters to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter under North Carolina v. Alford. A defendant who enters an “Alford plea” maintains his innocence but admits that the prosecution’s evidence would be sufficient to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt. The agreement calls for the prosecutor to ask the court to dismiss Peters’ remaining charges.
Sentencing guidelines calculated for the court recommend that Peters serve between two years and one month to five years and seven months in a state penitentiary. Judges must consider sentencing guidelines when setting punishment, according to state code. The law does not require that judges set a punishment within the guidelines unless they accept a plea agreement that includes that condition.
The Gordon family and friends sat in the audience, most of them trying to hold back tears during the testimony. Peters and his friends and family also tried to keep from crying during the hearing.
Olivia Gordon’s parents, Leanne and Andrew, testified through tears about how the loss of their daughter has affected their lives.
“Of course, I’m her mom so I’m prejudiced,” Leanne Gordon said. “She was the most amazing little girl.
“She had quite the upfront personality, loved everyone ... she was that little girl, you know, just gave it her all,” the mother added.
Her daughter always wanted to learn and to help cook or fold laundry as examples, Leanne Gordon recalled. She told the court short stories about her daughter.
Leanne Gordon then testified about the moments before the crash.
“And the last thing that I remember saying to my little girl was ‘don’t eat too many cheese doodles; it’ll give you a headache,” she recalled.
The mother testified that she woke up in the hospital emergency department by herself and a nurse stayed with her.
“She says ‘excuse me, ma’am, you’ve got something in your ear; it looks like cheese doodles,” Leanne Gordon said. “But I wouldn’t let them take it out.”
The mother went on to testify that Peters took away her child and no matter what sentence the court would give him, it cannot bring her daughter back.
“I think until you actually go through that you can’t understand that complete, lost feeling that has been a nightmare every day,” Leanne Gordon said. “There’s no peeking around the steps telling us good morning. There’s none of those big blue eyes looking at you in the middle of the night saying ‘mommy, can I cuddle you.”
Andrew Gordon took the stand and read from his victim-impact statement, fighting back tears while recounting the time spent with Olivia.
“Those days are gone,” he testified. “Everything we have ever done in our lives, she was a part of. Everywhere we went, she was there beside us. She was amazing and now is gone.”
The father went on to speak about suffering injuries in the crash but noted that some scars serve as a constant reminder of the day their daughter died. He then commented that Peters should have chosen not to get behind the wheel. The father added that Olivia’s death has affected other members of her family and their friends.
“My wife - I don’t know how she does it,” Andrew Gordon said. “She’s the most amazing and strong woman I know. Without her, I wouldn’t be here today because it would be so easy just to end it.”
“This world is so empty without my girl,” he went on to say. “There’s such a huge hole in my heart, I don’t even know how to fill it. It can’t be filled.”
Allen called his client’s employer to the witness stand and he testified that Peters’ job would be available if the court ordered the defendant to serve probation. Peters did not testify but later made a statement by way of allocution.
Attorneys then argued about the punishment. Wiseley questioned the punishment recommended by the guidelines and called the range inadequate under these circumstances, noting the facts of the case and the damage to the family. The Gordons “did everything right,” Wiseley said.
“But they didn’t account for the defendant who, despite the traffic being slow and stopped, barrelled down the interstate, right into the back of their car and shattered that family forever,” Wiseley said.
The prosecutor went on to say that Peters never apologized during interviews for his actions. Also during her argument, Wiseley cited Peters’ traffic infractions, two of which were for speeding 15-19 miles per hour over the limit, both of which occurred in the months before the fatal crash.
Allen argued that the sentencing guidelines would have recommended his client serve probation and spend no time of active incarceration. However, Peters’ convictions when he was a juvenile increased the range of punishment in the guidelines. Allen went on to argue that, by definition, involuntary manslaughter means his client did not intentionally cause the incident.
Peters then made his statement in which he apologized and voiced remorse while also speaking about how the incident has affected his life.
“I know I can’t change what happened and I’m so sorry for the pain that I’ve caused,” Peters said, trying to hold back tears.
The defendant went on to say he would accept any punishment the court imposed.
“If I could take it all back, I would ... because it hurts so bad and I can only imagine the pain that they feel and it’s destroyed me,” Peters said.
Hupp recessed to his chambers to review the evidence presented and to consider punishment. The judge returned and spoke before he imposed punishment. Hupp said that in his 26 years on the bench, involuntary manslaughter cases were the most difficult when it came time to fashion a punishment.
“And the reason for that is you have a case that has tragic, horrendous consequences. The defendant’s conduct has caused excruciating and horrendous result that was not intended,” Hupp said. “It seems that we say in every one of these cases of this type that nothing that I do can bring the child back.
“But that does not mean that I do not ... wish that I could do that very thing,” Hupp added. “Nothing that I do today can ease your pain. Nothing that I do today will make you miss her any less.”
Hupp said he, as a judge, looks at both sides and sees Peters as remorseful and sorry for what happened. Hupp added that any sentence would affect Peters and his family. However, the judge noted that Peters was driving on a suspended license and doing so recklessly and has previous convictions for speeding.
“This case presents the sort of circumstances that I think we all fear,” Hupp said.
Hupp then went on to sentence Peters.
At the beginning of the hearing, Wiseley provided a synopsis of the evidence she planned to present had the case gone to trial. Virginia Trooper J. Rothwell responded on Oct. 28, 2016, to a motor vehicle crash on Interstate 81 southbound near mile marker 285 near Woodstock, Wiseley said. The trooper arrived and saw a heavily damaged 2009 Honda Accord turned sideways in the left lane with three people inside, Wiseley said. A Subaru Tribeca in front of the Honda sustained damage and had spun around to face north, she added. The Subaru had two people inside. The trooper also saw a GMC Sierra pickup with one person inside and heavy front-end damage.
The trooper identified Peters as the pickup driver. The trooper then walked to the Honda where he found a man in the driver’s seat, later identified as Andrew Gordon, who showed signs of external and internal trauma, Wiseley said. The trooper saw a woman in the front passenger seat, later identified as the driver’s wife, Leanna Gordon, with apparent serious injuries.
The trooper then saw a small girl, later identified as Olivia Gordon, 4, restrained in a front-facing, child safety seat behind the driver, Wiseley said. The collision forced the rear seat forward and pinned the child against the driver’s seat and her head resting against the area of the armrest, Wiseley explained. The child showed signs of severe trauma to the head and face. The investigation later revealed that the safety seat was properly installed and in working order, Wiseley said.
A nurse who was stopped in the traffic ahead of the crash went to the Honda, reached into the vehicle and tried to stabilize the child’s head. The nurse told the trooper the child had stopped breathing. The trooper took the child out of the Honda through the driver’s window and began CPR, Wiseley said. Emergency medical technicians arrived and advised the trooper that his efforts to revive the child were not successful, Wiseley said. The trooper took the child’s sweatshirt and laid it over her, Wiseley said.
The girl’s parents suffered serious injuries and responders took them to separate hospitals.
The Gordon family was traveling from their home in Pennsylvania through Virginia on their way to a beach in South Carolina.
The people in the Subaru told the trooper that they had stopped in heavy traffic and vehicles had just started to move slowly when the crash occurred, Wiseley said.
Rockwell obtained a search warrant for the GMC’s air-bag control module or “black box” and data collected from the device showed that the pickup had been traveling 84 mph at the time of the collision and that no brakes had been applied, Wiseley said. Rothwell then used his laser and calculated the sight distance along the stretch of highway leading up to the crash at 1,000 feet. Wiseley explained that Peters had plenty of time to slow down for the traffic ahead.