At a hearing today, Judge Nicholas Ford gave Robert Vais, the driver who struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk, a relatively light sentence of 100 days in a state prison plus two years probation. Vais must also perform manual labor as part of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program once a month for two years, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.
On December 6, 2013, Avalos, 28, a former Marine, was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, now 56, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.
Blood drawn from Vais soon after the crash showed his blood alcohol level was 0.152 percent, nearly twice the legal level of 0.08. He was charged with felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. On September 16 of this year, Vais pleaded guilty.
30 to 40 supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the local bike community, attended today’s sentencing hearing, according to Active Transportation Alliance staff member Jason Jenkins, who has attended most of the hearings for the case. A comparable number of people were there in support of Vais.
At the hearing, Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio, stepfather Jorge Cossio, and younger stepsiblings Brandon and Brandi read victim impact statements. Vais’ sister, a childhood friend, and a coworker read mitigating statements. Vais was given an opportunity to make a statement and expressed strong regret and remorse, and apologized profusely to Avalos’ relatives while tears came to his eyes, Jenkins said.
According to Illinois law, aggravated DUI carries a jail sentence of three-to-fourteen years, at least 85 percent of which must be served in prison, plus fines of up to $25,000. Probation is generally not an option, except in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that Judge Ford gave Vais a sentence of only 100 days, plus two years probation, with no fine. The jail term will begin on November 30, which gives Vais time to put his affairs in order before he serves time.
Ford spoke at length about the thought process behind his decision to grant a lenient sentence, according to Jenkins. He noted that Vais had no criminal record and a clean driving record and credited the defendant for staying on the scene, cooperating with police, and pleading guilty to the charges. In addition, 150 people wrote letters vouching for his character as a family man who contributed to his community by volunteering as a coach. “I can only imagine that all of those factors added up in the judge’s mind as being ‘exceptional circumstances,'” Jenkins said.
Ford noted that it was likely that neither Avalos nor Vais supporters – who likely hoped for a sentence of probation with no jail time – would be happy with the verdict. “We weren’t hoping for an outcome of another person’s life being destroyed,” said Jenkins. “The fact that there is jail time is somewhat reassuring.” According to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, there is no possibility that the jail sentence will be shortened.
Jenkins added that it was somewhat troubling that Ford referred to the fact that Avalos was wearing dark clothing at the time of the crash as a mitigating factor. Also problematic was the repeated use of the term “accident” to describe the fatal crash, even though Vais made a decision to get behind the wheel while heavily intoxicated, Jenkins said.
Avalos family lawyer Michael Keating (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) declined to comment on the sentence. However, he said that the family intends to proceed with its wrongful death lawsuit against Vais as well as Stroger Hospital, which hosted the work party where Vais drank before the crash. “We have every intention of pursuing the lawsuit to the full extent of the law,” Keating said. Last July, the Avalos family reached a cash settlement with Francesca’s on Taylor, the restaurant where the party was held.
Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio told me she felt numb in the wake of the judge’s decision, and is unsure whether it was a fair sentence or not. “I do feel a sense of closure, because every time I went to the courtroom, it was like I saw a video of my son being killed over and over.”
“[Vais] has to face the fact that what he did was wrong,” Cossio said. “He gets a new beginning, a new life, and a new chance to be with his family, so I hope he takes advantage of that opportunity. I don’t get that with my son.”