This story was updated March 12, 2018, at 11:29 p.m. with more information.
Ben Brewer offered his "deepest apologies" Monday to victims of a 2015 crash on Interstate 75, but it didn't sway a Hamilton County judge from sentencing the trucker to 55 years in prison for his role in the carnage.
"I just want the families to know that I'm sorry, and I hope they will accept my deepest apologies," Brewer, 42, said. "I'll keep these families in my prayers forever, and in my life, and may God bless them forever."
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said while he appreciated Brewer's apology, he believed the Kentucky man was a "dangerous offender" who had disregard for the six lives he ended on June 25, 2015.
"And here's what goes into that thinking," Poole said, referencing several pieces of evidence jurors used to convict Brewer during his vehicular homicide trial in January.
Prosecutors say Brewer crested a portion of Interstate 75 on that June day with methamphetamine in his system, ignored "construction ahead" signs and barreled into slowed traffic. He never hit the brakes, traveling another 453 feet with a crushed car stuck to the front of his 18-wheeler before he stopped. And then, authorities found him with falsified records of how long he'd been traveling, prosecutors said.
Though prosecutors introduced toxicology reports and crash reconstructionists at trial, some of their most compelling proof came from Brewer's victims, Poole said. At least one driver spotted Brewer speeding and tailgating on other vehicles before the crash. Tina Close said she and her family couldn't move out of their lane and could only gaze in horror as Brewer surged toward them in their rear-view mirror.
Others weren't so lucky.
Tiffany Watts, 31, her daughters, Savannah and Kelsie Garrigues, 9 and 11, respectively, and her mother, Sandra Anderson, 50, burned alive in their 2010 Toyota Scion. "A whole family was basically wiped out," Poole said. Also killed was 31-year-old Jason Ramos, an employee at Dalton State, and Ocoee Middle School's band director, Brian Gallaher, 37.
Charged with six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count each of driving under the influence and speeding, Brewer faced about 75 years in prison. No victims testified Monday, like they did at trial, but Poole had numerous letters and statements to consider while making his decision.
"The 75-year penalty he faces seems like a drop in the bucket for what he took," Sarah Kinkade wrote on behalf of Tiffany Watts. "I know that if given the maximum sentence he will never know a life outside of prison, but how fair is that knowing what he took?"
Brewer's public defenders asked Poole not to deliver a harsher sentence than necessary.
During trial, they argued no on-scene officers said Brewer appeared under the influence, he never showed signs of someone who'd ingested a stimulant, and a state toxicologist admitted to contaminating Brewer's blood test, which tested positive for methamphetamine but never distinguished between the illicit substance or an over-the-counter product that contained trace amounts of the drug.
Brewer was a productive member of society who'd never been convicted of a violent crime and never tried to hurt anybody, Jay Underwood, one of Brewer's public defenders, said Monday. Brewer has a daughter, 8, and spent a few years as her little league coach. He did have a methamphetamine possession charge out of Kentucky in 2015, but that was dismissed, Underwood said.
"He expressed his severe remorse and did take responsibility for what happened," Underwood said.
That didn't phase prosecutors, who asked Poole for the maximum punishment possible under the law. Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said Brewer needed to serve time for every charge, or have them run "consecutive" to one another.
Poole didn't quite do that, but he sentenced Brewer on his most severe charges. Poole stacked the vehicular homicide charges together, giving Brewer 11 years for each one. Vehicular homicide by way of intoxication is a Class B felony that carries 8 to 12 years behind bars. He also revoked Brewer's driver's license and fined him $400 for the DUI.
"Fifty five years is a harsh sentence. These types of cases are sad. So there are no real winners," Deputy Public Defender Mike Little said afterward. "Under the same sentencing laws applied today, Mr. Brewer will be eligible for release on parole in approximately 16 1/2 years followed by a long period of supervision, but that decision will be up to the parole board."
When the time is appropriate, Brewer will appeal his conviction, Little has said. Brewer has 30 days to file a motion for a new trial and then he likely will be transferred to a state prison.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
Clarification: A previous version said Judge Poole ran the charges together, it is more accurate to say he stacked the charges together.