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W.Va. teacher sentenced to prison in traffic fatality

April 30, 2002|BY DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

Despite testimony from character witnesses who said she should not be sent to jail, a judge on Monday sentenced a Martinsburg, W.Va., teacher to serve from 1 to 10 years in prison for her role in a drunken-driving death last year.

Defense attorney Richard Douglas, of Martinsburg, argued in Jefferson County Circuit Court that Margo Fritsch should be placed on home confinement for her guilty plea to a charge of driving under the influence causing death.

Douglas told Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. that Fritsch has been "terribly remorseful" over the death of Tracey Gregor, 28, and the incident has been particularly painful for her because Gregor was close in age to two of Fritsch's daughters.

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"She lives with that nightmare every day," Douglas said.

While judges try to represent the "conscience of the community" in imposing sentence, they must keep in mind that there are several goals in sentencing, Steptoe said.

Those goals include having the sentence act as a deterrent to others and punishing the defendant, Steptoe said.

Steptoe said the drunken-driving laws that have been enacted in the country were in response to the "slaughter on the highways."

In response to a request by Douglas, Steptoe agreed to let Fritsch remain free for a week before she reports to jail so she can make arrangements for her pets and take care of utilities at her Martinsburg home.

A parole board will determine how much time Fritsch will spend in prison, Douglas said.

A group of co-workers and family members comforted the 54-year-old woman after the sentencing.

Gregor, 28, and her fianc, Michael Shoppert, were westbound on W.Va. 45 outside Shepherdstown at about 7:20 p.m. on April 1, 2001, when their car's tire blew.

Gregor was clearing debris from the road when she was struck by a westbound car that kept going, police said.

She was taken by ambulance to City Hospital in Martinsburg, where she was pronounced dead.

About 10 minutes after the accident, Shepherdstown Police stopped a 1997 Ford Probe driven by Fritsch, police said.

Fritsch had earlier agreed to a plea agreement under which she would have pleaded guilty to driving under the influence causing death. Under that agreement, additional charges of driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident causing death and failure to maintain control were to be dropped.

Steptoe rejected the plea because he would have been bound to allow Fritsch to serve her sentence through home confinement.

The plea agreement under which Fritsch was sentenced Monday was the same except that Steptoe could decide whether to sentence Fritsch to prison or home confinement.

Judy Bowers, Gregor's mother, told Steptoe she did not believe Fritsch should be sentenced to home confinement.

"She took a life. She should have justice," said Bowers, of Martinsburg.

Fritsch cried at times during her court appearance and apologized to Bowers for the accident.

"I'm so very sorry. Children are precious. I know it was unforgivable. I am very sorry," said Fritsch, who was dressed in a black coat and black slacks.

At least six people testified on behalf of Fritsch, saying she was a vital part of the Martinsburg community and that sending her to jail would not accomplish anything.

Fritsch is a teacher who continues to tutor students at the Shenandoah Women's Center, where families are temporarily housed to protect them from domestic violence, said Anne Smith, executive director of the center.

Fritsch, who serves on the board of directors for the women's shelter, often went out of her way to help students, colleagues testified.

During the summer, Fritsch often walked Martinsburg-area children to War Memorial Park to help them get involved in recreation programs. Many of the children came from tough neighborhoods where drug abuse is commonplace, colleagues testified.

"She was always able and willing to work for them. Often, she knew more about the children than I did," said Smith.

Jack Sutor, parish priest at Trinity Church in Martinsburg, where Fritsch attends church, said he had conversations with Fritsch about the accident. Sutor said he could tell that she was "profoundly upset" over the accident.

"This is not a criminal. Mrs. Fritsch represents a community resource," said Sutor.

Charles Fritsch, Fritsch's husband, told Steptoe that allowing his wife to be on home confinement would enable her to continue her tutoring, which would help build her self-esteem.

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