Prison for man who caused train crash that killed his fiancee
A man who prosecutors said was "high as a kite" on marijuana when he drove onto railroad tracks in York Haven — causing a crash that killed his fiancee and badly injured their toddler — has been sentenced to at least four years in state prison.
Killed in the July 5, 2014, crash was Cori E. Sisti, of Mechanicsburg. It was her 23rd birthday that day, and they were on their way to meet family to celebrate. The couple's then-2½-year-old daughter, Serena Jones, was badly injured and flown by medical helicopter to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
Akim Jones-Williams also was badly hurt. Both he and Serena have recovered, according to trial testimony.
Jones-Williams, 28, formerly of Mechanicsburg and now of Laurel Springs, New Jersey, appeared Wednesday morning in York County Court to be sentenced. A jury on Jan. 13 found him guilty of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, homicide by vehicle, child endangerment, aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI, aggravated assault by vehicle, reckless endangerment, DUI and careless driving.
After listening to emotional victim-impact statements from Sisti's mother, aunt and a family friend, presiding Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Bortner noted that this was a difficult case for him to determine sentencing. Bortner said he had no doubt Jones-Williams didn't mean to hurt his fiancee and child but that he drove high and must be held accountable for his actions.
Four to eight years: He sentenced Jones-Williams to four to eight years in state prison, plus a year of probation. Bortner also ordered him to pay nearly $750 in restitution to Sisti's father.
Defense attorney Shawn Dorward said his client will appeal the jury verdict.
The crash happened about 4:45 p.m. on Cly Road in an area known as Slonneker's Landing, as the family was heading to the Susquehanna River, according to Newberry Township Police.
At trial, prosecutors told jurors that the train's warning horn, bells and lights all were activated, and that the conductor could see Sisti in the passenger seat, waving her arms at Jones-Williams to move. He did not, and was driving extremely slowly.
During trial, jurors heard testimony that he confessed to a woman named Denise Gibson to being high that day.
"I drove up there ... (for) 18 miles, high as a kite, and nothing happened, so it's not my fault that the train hit our car," Jones-Williams told Gibson, according to court documents.
A mother's sentence: Sisti's mother, Holly Sisti, spoke tearfully in court about her daughter — her charisma, work ethic and big personality.
"This girl had dreams and aspirations," Holly Sisti said, adding that her daughter intended to return to school to become a pastry chef and also wanted to have another child.
"I'm sentenced to a lifetime without my daughter," she said, but added that she feels "blessed" that Serena survived.
Family friend Sherry White said she watched as her heartbroken friends Holly and Ron Sisti struggled financially, having taken off work to be by Serena's hospital bedside as the tot recovered from life-threatening injuries.
She said Jones-Williams never apologized and hasn't taken responsibility for the crash, making it hard to forgive and move on.
"We would have purse parties all the time," White said. "Now (Cori) sits on her parents' bookshelf in one of those purses."
'So confident': Lisa Dynarski, Cori's aunt, said her niece's smile lit up a room.
"She just made you laugh," Dynarski said. "And she was so confident about who she was."
Jones-Williams also spoke in court, telling the judge that he and Cori Sisti loved, respected and supported each other and were together for close to eight years. He said he worked long hours, sometimes 12-plus hours a day, to financially support his family.
"Me and Cori, we were greater than just partners," he said. "There was a great connection between me and Cori."
Jones-Williams told the judge he sometimes, while sleeping, thinks she's still alive.
"I've woke up in cold sweats and tears," he said. "I would never, ever, ever do anything to purposely hurt my family. ... Whether you believe I was reckless or not ... it was a tragic accident."
Actions speak louder: But chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker argued that Jones-Williams' actions speak louder than his words. Barker noted that Serena nearly died, and he too said he saw a lack of remorse from the defendant.
"He drove 18 miles while high as a kite," Barker reminded the judge.
Barker also noted that Jones-Williams has received three traffic citations since the fatal crash.
Dorward, the defense attorney, argued that Serena needs to have her father back in her life as soon as possible.
"No one can take the place of the child's father," he said.
Jones-Williams has custody of Serena, but the Sisti family will raise her while he's imprisoned, according to Dorward.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.