CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Family friend Ilene Hedum talked of Frederick Shelton Sr. on Friday, standing in a courtroom just a few feet from the convicted drunken driver who killed him.
“We loved him, and we know he loved us,” Hedum said of the decades of friendship among her, her husband, Shelton and his wife, Sheri.
Hedum described Shelton as a happy family man, a husband very much in love with his wife, a father beaming with pride when his oldest child was born, a hardworking man who started his own auto-detailing business.
But the happiness shared with family and friends vanished Sept. 12, 2009, the day Shelton was killed in what Hedum called “a heartless blink of a drunken, blind eye.”
That day, Philadelphia resident John J. Lawless, now 38, had been drinking heavily, a decades-long habit that would cost the Shelton family dearly.
On Friday, Lawless received a 30-year prison sentence for first-degree aggravated manslaughter.
“This defendant is simply unwilling or unable to abide by the law,” Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten said.
Lawless was traveling north on Route 9 in Lower Township as the Sheltons — Frederick Sr., Sheri and their youngest child, Brittany — headed south on a family trip with plans to stop for ice cream.
Just before 8:30 p.m., at Route 9 and Bennetts Crossing, Lawless’ Chrysler Sebring convertible careened into the southbound lane. Another car managed to maneuver out of the way, but the Sheltons could not avoid the crash.
Shelton, 50, died at the scene, his wife and daughter beside him.
Sheri Shelton suffered numerous injuries, including broken bones and internal injuries, and was in a coma for a month. Brittany, 13, was also hospitalized, although she suffered less severe injuries than her mother.
“Chaotic insanity enveloped the Shelton family,” Hedum said. She went on to ask, “Why don’t drunk drivers hit other drunk drivers instead of good and decent people going about their lives?”
On Friday, after hearing from friends such as Hedum and family including the Shelton’s 16-year-old daughter, Marissa, Batten sentenced Lawless to the maximum sentenced for the first-degree charge.
“The history of DWI offenses is clear. It is excessive. It is repetitive,” Batten said as he reviewed the circumstances of the case.
Lawless’ drunken-driving record goes back to Oct. 2, 1996, in Pennsylvania, when he was first arrested.
That day, he had a blood-alcohol level of .248, more than three times the current legal limit in New Jersey. That case ended with Pennsylvania’s equivalent of pre-trial intervention, known as accelerated rehabilitative disposition.
Other driving-while-intoxicated charges followed in March and September 1998, April 1999, July 2004, June 2005, December 2008 and finally the crash that killed Shelton in 2009.
In each case, Lawless’ blood-alcohol content was well above the current legal limit of .08. His lowest recorded blood-alcohol content was .208 in 1998, his highest .285 in April 1999. On two occasions, he refused a breath test.
Some of the cases ended in probation and two included jail time, but none stopped Lawless from drinking and driving.
“When left to his own choices … he not only abuses alcohol, but he consumes alcohol to a pathologic degree,” Batten said.
As he evaluated the aggravating factors in the case, Batten pointed to the ever present need to deter drunken drivers.
He pointed to other cases both defense attorney John Tumelty and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Rob Johnson mentioned Friday that involved fatalities.
“There exists overwhelming need to deter similarly situated (individuals) from violating the law,” Batten said, noting that the frequency with which the court has to address drunken driving cases has not decreased.
“It is difficult for this court to imagine circumstances that more compellingly command strong sanction by this court,” Batten said.
Johnson had asked Batten to impose the maximum sentence given Lawless’ record and the events of Sept. 12. 2009.
After the crash, Lawless initially told police he was not the one driving and that someone else was driving the car. Police found the single flip flop Lawless was wearing matched another flip flop left on the floor of the driver’s side of the car.
At the time of the crash, Lawless was also driving while his license was suspended and he had been without a valid driver’s license for about 10 years, Johnson said.
Batten pointed to Lawless’ many arrests and chances to serve probationary terms.
“He’s had many opportunities to reform himself,” Johnson said, but Lawless “hasn’t done it.”
Lawless and his brothers spoke early in the sentencing hearing, turning to Sheri Shelton and the rest of Shelton’s family and friends.
Lawless, who is married with two children and two step-children, has worked as a self-employed appliance repair contractor. He said he has been struggling with alcoholism since his 20s.
“I can’t ever ask for your forgiveness because I can’t forgive myself,” Lawless said.
Lawless said he never meant to hurt anybody and recognized there was nothing he could do to repair the damage he has caused.
“I have a disease that I can’t handle,” Lawless said.
His brother, Brian, apologized as well.
“We’re deeply sorry for the Shelton’s loss very, very much so,” he said.
He described his brother as a good man. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” he said.
Shelton’s family members and friends cried and consoled each other as they recalled Shelton and what he meant to them.
Bruce Shelton said he remembered the day his brother was born and his mother brought him home. He related his brother’s early love of hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other memories that made family members smile.
“You killed him, John Lawless, just as sure as you pulled a trigger on a gun.”
Before the judge imposed his sentence, Tumelty argued Lawless should not receive the maximum, pointing to other cases such as that of Matthew Maher, a Middle Township man who was sentenced to 5½ years for aggravated manslaughter in the March 2009 death of Hort Kap. Maher had a blood-alcohol content of 0.21 at the time of that crash.
Tumelty said the maximum sentence was similar to prison time given to someone guilty of an intentional killing.
As he prepared to impose the sentence, Batten noted the crash left behind “layers of tragedy and nothing will change that, sadly.”
The judge said Lawless’ actions, including his DWI history, were worth the maximum sentence he could impose.
Lawless must serve 85 percent of the 30-year prison term under the state’s No Early Release Act. He will also have his license suspended upon his release for 10 years consecutive with any pending license suspension from Pennsylvania.
The sentence brought applause from some of Shelton’s family and friends, although they still expressed grief.
Pastor Scott Durbin read letters to the court written by Sheri and Brittany.
Sheri Shelton wrote that she never would have imagined being a widow at the age of 45 with three children, Frederick Jr., Marissa and Brittany, to raise.
“He was my best friend, my soul mate,” she wrote.
Speaking on Brittany Shelton’s behalf, Durbin told the judge that the young girl sat inches away from her father as he lay motionless following the crash.
“My heart shattered to pieces,” she wrote.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian:
Lawless’ history of drunken driving
Oct. 2, 1996: A charge of driving while intoxicated with a blood-alcohol content of .248 ended in accelerated rehabilitative disposition.
March 15, 1998: DWI with blood-alcohol content of 0.233. Probation.
Sept. 7, 1998: DWI with blood-alcohol content of 0.208. Probation.
April 29, 1999: Following an accident, DWI with blood-alcohol content of 0.285. Probation. Also convicted of assault on victim. Sentenced to two to three months jail.
July 26, 2004: Following an accident, DWI with blood-alcohol content of 0.222. Dismissed for lack of speedy trial.
June 2005: DWI, refused blood-alcohol test and was convicted of refusal. Sentence to one to two years in jail.
Dec. 24, 2008: Following an accident, refused test. Still an active case. Bench warrant issued.
Sept. 12, 2009: Following an accident, and with a blood-alcohol content of 0.229, charge first-degree aggravated manslaughter, DWI. Sentenced to 30 years in state prison
Source: Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office