Driver gets up to 6 years in crash that killed teens

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Janet Phillips recalled her son playing with toy dinosaurs and Star Wars figurines as a child.

She recalled how he loved the holidays. And how, after only two months working at McDonald's, he had been named employee of the month and tapped to become a manager.

And how, when he died in a car crash, she was astounded by the number of young men who showed up at the funeral home to show their love for her son.

"I just wanted to die myself," she said. "I couldn't believe I was living this nightmare because of this one reckless act."

Derek Phillips, 20, along with David Rizzo Jr., and Tara Schulz, 18, all of Upper St. Clair, were killed when the car they were traveling in on the Parkway West on Feb. 21, 2010, left the roadway and crashed.

Police said that the driver of the car, Ryan Safka, 21, also of Upper St. Clair was traveling at 106 mph, lost control of the 2007 Dodge Caliber, hit the jersey barrier, then went up and over a snowbank on the side of the highway and became airborne.

Safka was convicted of three counts of homicide by vehicle in a bench trial in February.

On Tuesday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning sentenced him to 21/2 to 6 years in prison.

"What we have here is a tragedy that happened in the twinkle of an eye," the judge said.

But, he continued, there was never any explanation as to what caused Safka to drive at such a high rate of speed at 2 a.m. with "no particular place to go."

Although the standard guideline range for Safka, who has no criminal record, called for 3 to 12 months in jail, Judge Manning went beyond that.

The judge stacked the sentences, a minimum of 10 months up to 2 years, on top of each other to recognize each of the three people killed.

Although the victims' loved ones asked that the court impose a harsh sentence to send a message to other young people about the dangers of speeding, Judge Manning said, "No matter what sentence is imposed on Mr. Safka, I've never seen that deter other young people from acting irrationally."

Safka, who sat emotionless throughout the trial in the winter and the sentencing hearing, spoke briefly, apologizing to the individual families.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened," he said.

While he does not expect the families' forgiveness, he said, "I pray for God's forgiveness, and I'm going to for the rest of my life."

Defense attorney Robert E. Stewart, who replaced trial attorney Dan Hargrove, addressed the families' contentions that his client had no remorse, and said instead that the young man has depression and is taking Zoloft.

"This is a young man that is very remorseful and has difficulty dealing with what happened here," Mr. Stewart said.

According to testimony at trial -- and information recovered from the Event Data Recorder in the vehicle -- Safka was traveling 106 mph just before the crash.

Mr. Stewart asked the judge before the sentencing to grant his client a new trial based on what he considered ineffective assistance of counsel from Mr. Hargrove.

He argued that the former attorney should have called an expert at trial regarding the so-called "black box" that records speed and braking events, but Mr. Hargrove said his client's family could not afford to hire one.

Judge Manning said that had the lawyer asked the court, he would have provided funds.

Beverly Schulz, grandmother of Tara Schulz, said Safka made a choice to drive that fast that morning, and should be punished for it.

"There's an indescribable pain in our hearts and a void that cannot be filled," she said.

Following the sentencing, David Rizzo Sr., whose son was killed, said he was unsure of his feelings about the sentence.

"It's still not going to bring my kid back," he said. "He just never had a chance to live. He was only 20."

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Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. First Published June 27, 2012 12:00 AM


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