Whitehall man sent to prison for drunk driving death.

October 20, 2020

Nicholas Kawula, left, and his attorney James Marek.

Whitehall man sent to prison for drunk driving death.

#MasonCountyCrime.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

LUDINGTON — A 33-year-old Whitehall man was sentenced to 19 months to 15 years in prison in 51st Circuit Court Tuesday, Oct. 20, for a conviction of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death in connection to the vehicular death of Christopher Patrick Kapala, 40, of Scottville.

Nicholas Francis Kawula, of 316 S. Division St., pleaded “no contest” to the charge, Sept. 1.

Tension was thick inside the courtroom, which was packed with family members and supporters of both Kawula and Kapala.

The crash occurred Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019 on US 31 near Free Soil Road in Free Soil Township at 4:26 a.m. Kawula, who was driving a 2012 Dodge Caravan, had attended a Christmas party in Traverse City and was on his way back to Whitehall when he fell asleep at the wheel.

Kapala, who was driving a Chevrolet Cavalier, was on his way to work. “His life was suddenly snuffed out,” said Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola. Kapala leaves behind a 2-year-old son named Axton.

Donna Kapala addresses the court with her husband Steve at her side.

“Society and the legislature consider this to be a very serious act, and so do I,” said Spaniola.

Judge Susan K. Sniegowski said Kawula’s blood alcohol content registered at .103, according to the police report.

The investigation determined that Kawula’s vehicle was traveling southbound on US 31, crossed the centerline, and struck Kapala’s northbound vehicle head-on. Kapala died at the scene.

Kawula was transported by ambulance to Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital with serious injuries and was then transferred to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids for advanced care.

Kapala’s mother Donna read a gut-wrenching statement in the courtroom. “We cannot begin to imagine what you and your family have gone through and will continue to go through,” she said to Kawula.

“We have lost a father, a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin and a friend all due to a bad decision on your part.”

She said her son had a “big heart.” A woman reached out to her after his death, telling her the story of how Kapala saved her from drowning in the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina. She told other stories of how her son helped people without ever giving it a second thought.

“He was a registered organ donor but there was too much damage to his body from the accident for this wish to be completed,” she said as she choked back tears.

“He adored his son, Axton,” she said. “Axton was not even 2 when Chris was taken from him. Axton will grow up without his father. Chris will never see his son grow up.

“For several months after Chris was killed, I would wake up at about 4:30 in the morning wondering what went through his mind in the last few seconds of his life.

“There will always be a missing part of this family due to this accident. Here it is 10 months later, and I still cry daily. Our lives will never be the same again.

“Mr. Kawula, you will go away for awhile, but you will be able to come back home to your family. You will be able to see your children grow up. You will be able to participate in their lives and futures. You will be able to enjoy the rest of your family. Chris will not. My son will never be able to give me a hug again and say, ‘I love you, Ma,'” said Donna as she wept.

Kawula also provided an emotional statement to the court. “I had no idea that what would happen that night on the way home would change my life and the lives of others forever,” he said.

“I woke up in my vehicle and was told another person had lost their life,” he said as his voice trembled. “I did not get in my vehicle that night with the intent to hurt anybody. I hurt many people with my actions.

“I am so sorry for what happened that night. I am sorry to everyone that I hurt because of this. Every single day I battle and struggle with myself that I survived and he didn’t.

“I struggle constantly for this family, because nobody should ever have to go through this. I am so sorry for the pain that I have caused. I understand if you’re angry and you hate me and you wish me ill. But I did not mean any ill toward your son that night. I’m sure he was a good man, and I am deeply sorry. I fight every day wishing that it was me that went and not him. He did not deserve this and neither did you.”

“There is no question that this is an extremely difficult and tragic situation for everybody involved,” said Judge Sniegowski. “Both families that are in court today are going through unimaginable pain. The difference is one of you is alive and one person is not. One of you made a decision to drive after drinking, and the other one did not — the other one was on his way to work.

“There are reasons why we have these laws against drinking and driving, and this case represents the worst case scenario. This is why you don’t drink and drive.

“His life was cut short by this decision — Mr. Kawula’s decision to drink and drive,” said the judge. “There is no good answer here for what to do. There is no question in my mind that Mr. Kawula will live with this for the rest of his life. What the question is, that he does have the rest of his life to live and has family that he will be able to go home to. And the bigger societal question and issue is that there needs to be punishment — there needs to be consequence, so people clearly understand how easy it is for this to happen to anybody. Drunk driving accidents just don’t happen to bad people. They happen to people who make bad decisions.”

Defense attorney James Marek said his client has no prior criminal record and is employed. “Nick immediately after this accident was devastated by what had taken place,” Marek said. “He enrolled in counseling and is still engaged in counseling.

“Sitting next to me is a man with absolutely no criminal history with absolutely no brushes with the law,” he said. “A man with two children — a family man who goes to work supporting his family.”

Marek said Kawula slept about three and a half to four hours before he drove home following the Christmas party. “Unfortunately on the way home, he did fall asleep.”

Marek asked Judge Sniegowski to sentence his client to one year in jail instead of prison.

Kawula was also ordered to pay over $3,500 in restitution with most of the amount going toward the Kapala family to reimburse them for funeral and cremation expenses.

Operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Sentencing guidelines in the case are 19-38 months.

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