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Plea is entered in fatal accident

August 22, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

With the family of the victims watching, a Shippensburg, Pa., woman pleaded no contest Thursday in Franklin County Court to two counts of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence in the Dec. 13, 2002, deaths of a popular high school teacher and his wife.

Sabrina Lynn Whitsel, 39, of 250 Goodhart Road, also pleaded no contest to one count of driving under the influence in the deaths of Tim and Susan Cook of Chambersburg, who were killed when Whitsel's pickup truck struck their car head-on on Interstate 81 south of Chambersburg.

Whitsel had been scheduled for a nonjury trial Thursday before Judge John R. Walker when she entered the plea. Because it was a no-contest plea, she was not required to make a statement detailing her actions that night.

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Walker, however, asked Whitsel if she had been drinking and driving that night and she answered "yes" before Assistant Public Defender Deborah K. Hoff reminded him that a statement of guilt was not required.

Walker told Whitsel a no-contest plea cannot be automatically used against her in any subsequent civil litigation, but called it "a dressed-up guilty plea" that makes no difference when it comes to sentencing.

Under a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but offers no defense.

Assistant Franklin County District Attorney T.R. Williams said each of the vehicular homicide charges carries a mandatory minimum of three years in prison and a maximum of 10 years. Under state law, he said those sentences must be served consecutively, meaning at least six to 20 years.

After the hearing, Williams said the judge could order a higher minimum sentence of up to five years on each count when Whitsel returns for sentencing on Sept. 26.

Whitsel faces up to $55,000 in fines on the three charges, plus any restitution as determined by the probation department, he said.

"At this point, the only thing to say is there are no winners," said Tom Cook, Tim Cook's brother. "The process is running its course."

The Cooks' children, Brian and Allison, both college students, declined comment after the hearing.

Whitsel, who was injured in the crash, had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 percent and tested positive for marijuana when blood and urine samples were taken an hour after the 11:07 p.m. accident, according to Pennsylvania State Police.

A blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent is considered legally intoxicated in Pennsylvania.

According to the affidavit of probable cause, police arrived at the accident scene to find Whitsel's pickup truck overturned in the median. The Cooks' car and two tractor-trailers also were in the median, police said.

Witnesses told police the pickup truck was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic as it went south. One witness saw the pickup cross the median into the northbound lanes and hit the Cooks' vehicle, police said.

The Cooks' 1992 Toyota then spun around and was hit by one of the tractor-trailers and then the other. The couple, both 49, were pronounced dead at the scene.

A 1971 graduate of Chambersburg Area Senior High School, Tim Cook won the state two-mile crown as a senior. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1975, he returned to the high school the following year as a math teacher and coach of the girls cross country and track teams.

In his 27 years as the girls cross country coach, Tim Cook's teams won nine district titles and state championships in 1977 and 1989.

Susan Cook was an administrative assistant at Shippensburg University.

"They took care of all the kids that ran with them," said Terry Ward, a retired county probation worker whose daughter was on the cross country and track teams. "It didn't matter whether you were the 50th person on the team or his No. 1 runner."

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