15 years: Magnitude of I-64 rampage weighs in sentence
"If you were a monster, this would be easier," said Judge Cheryl Higgins before pronouncing sentence on the teen who terrorized two counties for two days last year, closing Interstate 64 for six hours and Albemarle County schools on March 27, 2008.
"I'd like to apologize to all the people affected by this," said Slade Woodson, 20, in Albemarle Circuit Court June 23 before Higgins sentenced him. "There's no reason to justify what I did. If I could take it all back I would... I do take full responsibility for my actions."
Still, Woodson appeared stunned after Higgins gave him 15 years. His attorney had suggested 8 to 10 years; Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford requested 20 years. On the 14 counts Woodson faced, a maximum sentence could have put him away for 150 years.
Initiially, said Lunsford, police didn't know if they were dealing with a gang initiation or another DC sniper. "I felt like with what happened to this community, 20 years were appropriate," she said. "Mr. Woodson has a lot of support in the community. But it's important for the community to see a substantial sentence and a deterrent."
"I think he's taking it hard right now," said defense attorney Jessica Smith. "You try to be prepared, but when you hear what the next 15 years of your life are gong to be... He's been wanting to know what the sentence is and get on with his life."
Smith noted that while incarcerated, Woodson has gotten his GED, is taking Bible classes, tutors inmates in English as a Second Language classes, and had an array of family and friends testify that he's a polite, hardworking young man– and that they had no idea of the severity of his alcohol problem.
And it was alcohol that fueled the events that started the evening of March 26, 2008. At that time, according to clinical psychologist Jeffrey Aaron, Woodson was drinking two to three six-packs a day. On the night of the shooting spree, Aaron estimates Woodson could have had 20 or more beers, and was highly functional consuming that amount of alcohol.
"Slade also described to me engaging in an extremely dangerous pattern of behavior," said Aaron. Drinking, mud bogging, driving around shooting at signs, and spotlighting deer were typical activities for Woodson, said the psychologist.
"This night was like any other," he said.
Judge Higgins questioned Woodson's awareness that night, noting that he was aware enough to go to Wal-Mart for more ammo before shooting at a house in Waynesboro, and was aware I-64 would be under investigation after the shootings and took another route home through Greene County in his orange AMC Gremlin, which died just inside the northern border of Albemarle County.
"I find it hard to believe he doesn't make a distinction between shooting a sign or deer and a car with people in it on the interstate," said Higgins.
"I would distinguish awareness from judgment," said Aaron.
Earlier in court, a former inmate who shared a cell with Woodson at Middle River Regional Jail testified.
“He told me he did stupid things when he got drunk,” said Matthew Kurdziolek, “He told me he wanted to kill somebody that night.”
Woodson, then 19, and Brandon Dawson, 15, fired into five cars on I-64, injuring two people, and into two occupied residences in Albemarle, as well as one in Waynesboro.
The two even had a plan, according to the inmate, that exploited Dawson’s status as a minor. “They knew the juvenile wouldn’t do any time,” said Kurdziolek, who was clad in striped prison attire. “If they got caught, Dawson would say he did it.”
Dawson was released in May after a little more than a year in juvenile detention.
Before the lunch break of the June 23 hearing, two victims of the shooting spree also testified. Domenico D’Auria told how his family was sleeping in its Greenwood Station house when a bullet suddenly tore through the walls. Since the incident, his four-year-old son, who was in the shot-up front room, can’t sleep alone.
Julia Diggs revealed how she was on her way home from her General Electric job westbound on I-64 when she passed under Greenwood Station Road/Route 690. She said she saw some lights flashing on the overpass.
“I heard a bang hit the roof of my car,” she testified. “I was was not sure what was going on, but my back started burning.”
Although not seriously injured, the woman told the court she continues to feel unsafe driving at night, and now works during the day.
Woodson also was ordered to pay more than $12,000 in restitution to the victims.