Saying 'I despise myself,' Pawtucket man gets 15-year sentence for crash that

PROVIDENCE — James Belanger hunched over a microphone in Providence Superior Court on Friday to say how sorry he was for driving the car that crashed into a pole in Pawtucket in 2017, killing three young, female passengers.

But at one point his voice broke and instead of words, he let out a desperate moan.

Sobs broke through the gallery where the loved ones of the three women — Fatima Rosa, 22, Emily Howell, 20, and Theresa Leary, 24 —  sat awaiting Belanger’s sentencing.

Belanger, 23, of Pawtucket, pleaded no contest to six counts in connection with his role in the deadly crash, and a judge sentenced him to serve 15 years in the Adult Correctional Institutions.

During the hearing, family members and friends of the victims spoke, or had statements read on their behalf, about the impact the losses of the young women had on their lives.

Lisa Sherman, Theresa Leary’s mother, said through tears that the pain was indescribable.

“It’s in 1,000 breathtaking realizations of what will never be,” she said. “It’s in being late to work because I’m on the side of the road sobbing from an emotional sucker punch.”

Leary was a happy person who loved Harry Potter, adored animals and volunteered at an animal shelter. Leary was starting to come into her own as an adult, her mother said.

“She was so much happier than we’d seen her in years,” she said.

Around midnight on April 6, 2017, Belanger was driving a 2004 Nissan Altima on Walcott Street in Pawtucket when he crashed the car into a utility pole east of Schofield Street. The car ripped in half, with the two sections of the vehicle landing about 75 feet apart from each other.

The three women, who were not wearing seat belts, were killed. A fourth passenger, who was wearing a seat belt, survived.

Belanger’s blood alcohol content after the crash was .139, almost twice the legal limit of .08, and he also had THC and cocaine in his system, said prosecutor John Corrigan.

Howell’s sister, who did not say her name, read a statement written by their mother, Laurie Howell.

Emily Howell had a young son whom she’ll never get to see grow up, and she now has a niece she’ll never get to meet.

“The defendant took away all my happiness that day,” Howell’s sister said, reading from the statement. “I wish it had been me, not Emily. I would do anything to get her back.”

Fatima Rosa’s father, Jose Rosa, approached the stand and stared directly at Belanger while Corrigan, who prosecuted the case, read a statement on his behalf.

“I want the defendant to know that he took from me one of the most precious things in my life, my daughter,” Corrigan said, reading from the statement. “I want the defendant to know that he gave me a life sentence. … I’m living a nightmare every day.”

“He has taken three lives that 100 percent would have impacted this world positively,” said Danielle Searcy, a friend of Leary’s.

“Theresa did not deserve this,” she said. “These families and friends did not deserve this.

“I wish I could say I forgive you,” she said, speaking to Belanger. “But I can’t. I hate you and what you’ve done to me and these families.”

When it was Belanger’s turn, he hung his head and spoke softly.

“Words cannot explain how I feel, how much pain I have brought you,” he said.

“I wish that night if anyone was to get hurt, it was myself,” he said. “I despise myself. I no longer want to live with myself for what I’ve done.

“I feel so bad for Emily’s baby,” he said, before breaking down. “I’m sorry.”

Belanger pleaded no contest to three counts of driving under the influence of liquor or drugs, resulting in death, and three counts of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death. The state dismissed three counts of driving to endanger, resulting in death, and one count each of possession of a controlled substance and driving while in possession of a controlled substance in consideration of the plea.

Superior Court Judge Joseph Montalbano sentenced Belanger to 15 years to serve, followed by 15 years of probation and a 15-year suspended sentence — meaning he will only have to serve it if he breaks the law or violates his probation. He also must pay $10,000 in fines and lose his license for eight years upon his release from prison.

Montalbano, who lost his own 23-year-old son in 2009, told the families in the courtroom that the sentencing would bring closure to the criminal process, but wouldn’t heal their pain.

“There can be nothing I can say or do to comfort you for the tragic losses of each of your three children” he said.

 — mlist@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @madeleine_list