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Volunteer firefighter gets six years for fatal crash

La Plata, MD - Charles County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Amy Bragunier called defendant Daniel Juwan Butler a “nice hard-working young man.” Bragunier then declared “nice people sometimes do bad things.” Butler stood before Bragunier in a jam-packed courtroom in La Plata Tuesday, Oct. 30 to be sentenced for an early December crash that claimed the life of Taylor Anne Halblieb, 21 of Hughesville (pictured, right). On Aug. 30, Butler, who was indicted in early June, pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter by motor vehicle, a charge that is a felony. Police investigators and responders dispatched to the scene of the crash on Route 6 west of Cooksey Road during the early morning hours of Dec. 7 confirmed that Butler was extremely intoxicated.
Bragunier sentenced Butler to 10 years in prison, suspending all but six years, with five years of supervised probation. “There was aggravation here,” said the judge. Noting that Butler, 23 of Newburg, was a long-time volunteer with his hometown volunteer fire department, Bragunier told the defendant, “I don’t want to send you to prison, but I have to.”

The outpouring of support for Halblieb’s family and friends was substantial as several benches were occupied by people of all ages wearing blue T-shirts with the victim’s picture on the back. The shirts were distributed during a 5-kilometer race held this past May in Halblieb’s memory, dubbed “Taylor’s Trot.” The event raised funds for the Charles County Humane Society. Friends and family, including Halblieb’s parents and a sister, described her as someone who made friends easily, loved dogs and had a bright future. Taylor Halblieb had aspired to be a police officer like her father. “If you had a good heart you were a friend for life,” said her mother, Patricia.

“My world came crashing down,” said Robert Halblieb, a retired police officer, who accused Butler of wanting “to play the mercy card.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Francis Granados provided Bragunier, who was not the judge presiding over the August plea hearing, with the prosecution’s statement of facts regarding the events that led to Taylor Halblieb’s death. The tragedy evolved from an evening of binge drinking by Butler (pictured, left) and fellow firefighter Logan A. Shifflett at the Greene Turtle in La Plata. Granados said a surveillance camera at the bar indicated Butler consumed about seven to nine beers. Butler and Shifflett then traveled in the defendant’s Ford F-150 to another bar, Vino Liquor, where Halblieb worked. There the two were observed drinking double shots of whiskey. Granados said Halblieb served the two men and called her best friend. The victim’s friend told investigators she heard two men in the background telling Halblieb to get off the phone. A surveillance camera revealed Halblieb spoke with the two men in Vino’s parking lot after she got off work and was headed for home in her Hyundai Elantra. Halblieb’s friend told authorities she received a text from the victim stating that she was being followed by two men in a truck. The friend then received a cell phone call from Halblieb, who indicated she believed they were no longer following her. What the friend heard next was a scream and the victim saying, “oh, no” before the call was abruptly ended.

The three-vehicle collision occurred when Butler’s eastbound truck, traveling at a high rate of speed, crashed into the rear of the Elantra, which was also traveling eastbound and had stopped for a red traffic light. The impact pushed the Hyundai into a Honda Odyssey van driven by a La Plata woman. Halblieb was transported to University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center where she died a short time later. Butler was transported to the same hospital. Shifflett was flown to University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center. The driver of the Honda van was not injured.

Granados argued for a maximum sentence, declaring it still wouldn’t be enough, opining that the State of Maryland does not take drunk driving seriously. “How is this not a crime of violence?" Granados asked. The prosecutor stated the case was tantamount to “depraved heart murder.” In suggesting a sentence above the guidelines, Granados told Bragunier, “this court has an opportunity to make a real impact.”

Those who spoke up for Butler included Southern Maryland Volunteer Firemen’s Association President Andrew Spalding, who made it clear he was speaking for himself and not the association. Spalding, who told the court he has known Butler since he [Butler] was a small child, described the defendant as “nothing but remorseful. This incident is tearing his soul apart. There’s no doubt Daniel should be held accountable.” Noting that Butler had no prior criminal record, Spalding said a long jail stretch wouldn’t be beneficial but an outreach program where Butler would address young people on the harsh consequences of driving while intoxicated would help the community. “Daniel Juwan Butler is not a bad person,” said Spalding.
Butler’s attorney, James Farmer, said his client pleaded guilty to spare Halblieb’s family the agony of a jury trial. Farmer also lobbied for the outreach program. “This is not who I am,” said Butler to Taylor Halblieb’s family and friends. “I wish it were me instead of her. All my life I’ve been helping people."

“So much misery inflicted by bad choices,” said Bragunier, who told the defendant that during his probation he would need to address students at all of Charles County’s high schools and the College of Southern Maryland regarding the consequences of choosing to drink and drive.

“On that night, you were anything but a nice person,” Bragunier told Butler. “The last 20 minutes of her life were hell.”

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com

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Learn more about the Humane Society of Charles County here

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