One was a gifted music teacher, wife and mother. The other a beloved grandmother, married to the same man for nearly 55 years, with a knack for making the holiday season special.
Both Santa Rosa women were killed March 15 in a rear-end crash caused by another driver looking down at his cellphone.
Family members of Sue Hufford, 53, and her mother-in-law, Sharon Hufford, 74, expressed their grief Friday at a sentencing hearing for driver Nicholas Tognozzi, 30, of Rohnert Park, who received a year in jail.
“I can be grandpa, but I have my limits,” said Donald Hufford, who was seriously injured in the crash that killed his wife. “I can’t be grandma. To fill that void would be impossible.”
Tognozzi, who stood before Judge Rene Chouteau in a blue jail uniform, cried as he listened to the elderly man and his son, Jay Hufford, who lost his wife and mother, as well as to speeches from his sister and sister-in-law.
Wiping back tears, he apologized to the family.
“I’m very sorry for the pain and heartbreak I’ve caused your family,” he said. “It’s not something I intended to do.”
Tragedy struck as Jay Hufford drove his wife, mother and father to a restaurant to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Their Toyota Camry became stopped in traffic on Highway 12, near the Farmers Lane offramp.
The two women sat in the back seat.
Tognozzi, who was driving a GMC pickup, approached from behind at more than 50 mph. He said he looked down at his phone to check for a text message and was unable to avoid slamming into the back of the Camry.
The two women died instantly. CHP officers who responded to the wreck said they initially believed Tognozzi was under the influence of marijuana, but testing showed he was not impaired.
However, the judge ruled Tognozzi showed gross negligence by taking his eyes off the road while driving in a congested area. Tognozzi later admitted two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter in an agreement with the judge to avoid trial.
Under state sentencing laws, he will be eligible for release after serving half of the punishment. The judge also ordered him to pay more than $1 million in restitution to Jay and Don Hufford and perform 300 hours of community service.
The Hufford family did not criticize the sentence, but Jay Hufford highlighted his non-involvement in the plea deal and told the judge he was prepared to testify if the case had gone to trial.
“Nobody did us a favor by depriving me and my father of our day in court,” he told the judge.
Hufford and other family members described the devastation caused by the crash. His sister said it was like a “tsunami” hit the family.
And Jay Hufford said he felt like he “lived through a war.” His wife, with whom he said he had “35 wonderful years,” is badly missed by her college-age children as well as her students in the Mark West Union School District, who he said have not picked up their instruments since she died.
He addressed Tognozzi directly, telling him, “Nick, up to now I could not bear to speak your name. I could only call you ‘the perpetrator.’ ”
“Give Christ your future, and you receive in return full and free forgiveness for your sins,” he told Tognozzi.