Kimball Sentenced to 17 Years in Prison : Former Olympic Diver Must Serve at Least a Third of Term in Fatal Drunk-Driving Case

Times Staff Writer

Bruce Kimball, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in diving, Monday was sentenced to 17 years in prison and 15 years' probation for a drunk-driving accident that killed two teen-agers and injured four last August in Brandon, Fla., a suburb of Tampa.

Kimball, dressed in a blue jail uniform, showed no emotion during a 2 1/2-hour hearing in Tampa before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe, who said he hopes the sentence "will scream out to the young people that you must suffer the consequences of drunk driving. We must stop it."

Coe also ordered the permanent revocation of Kimball's driver's license and stipulated that Kimball's probation include community service.

After the sentencing and a brief visit with his parents and friends, Kimball, 25, was led from the courtroom, crying. He will remain in Hillsborough County Jail until he is taken to the Lake Butler reception center for the Florida State Prison system.

Bobbie Glover of the prison system said that Kimball will be taken to one of the state's major facilities, but because of his lack of criminal history, he eventually will be put in a low-security facility.

Under law, he must serve one-third of the sentence before becoming eligible for release. Thus, Kimball will not be eligible for more than 5 years.

In the Florida legal system, prisoners are not eligible for parole, but they can receive early release at the discretion of prison officials. Coe said that most prisoners, except those who commit violent crimes, sex crimes or drug trafficking, serve 33% to 40% of their sentences.

Coe said many are released early because of a federally mandated prison cap, stating that when the Florida facilities reach 90% capacity, their populations must be reduced.

Kimball pleaded guilty Jan. 11 to two counts of drunk driving-manslaughter and three counts of driving under the influence-causing serious injury.

Shortly after testimony began, he unexpectedly changed his plea to guilty.

Kimball was allowed to change the plea Monday to no contest, a technical move giving victims and their families a better chance of collecting damages from insurance companies.

Lee Fugate, one of Kimball's attorneys, said: "Bruce's only reaction was, he had wanted to take his punishment and wanted to do what he could to take away the pain and suffering from the victims and his family. He is a courageous kid, I'll tell you that."

State sentencing guidelines called for no fewer than 7 years in prison and no more than 22, but Coe had the discretion to go under or over those guidelines.

Coe sentenced Kimball to 15 years on one count of manslaughter and 2 years on one count of driving under the influence-serious injury, with the sentences to run consecutively. Kimball drew 15 years' probation on the second manslaughter count and 5 years each on the two other injury counts, with the probationary periods to be served concurrently.

Coe said during sentencing that Kimball did not receive the maximum penalty "because the defense demonstrated no element of intent and harm in the case."

But Coe added: "This was not only punishment, but a deterrent. He wasn't going to be rehabilitated. He was as rehabilitated as he would ever be."

Several civil suits have been filed against Kimball as a result of the accident, and his attorneys told Coe that Kimball decided to ask that he be allowed to change his plea to no contest out of fear that his two insurance companies might evade liability if they could prove he violated conditions of his policy.

"A guilty plea could possibly do that," attorney Greg Sawyer told reporters. "I have no indication either company would do so, but we would like to remove that possibility."

John Skye, an assistant state attorney, said that relatives of the victims opposed the no-contest plea, despite the possibility that the insurance companies might be freed of liability by guilty pleas.

"From a practical standpoint, there's going to be no problem on (proving) liability. This (no contest) just buffers your position," Coe said. "It doesn't alter in any way what is going to be proved.

"I'm going to allow the no-contest pleas in deference to the victims. I do not think it wise to run the risk on this. It is somewhat a fine point, but I don't see that the risk is merited."

Robert E. Bedell, father of one of the two killed, and April Bruffy, one of the injured, both urged Coe to impose the maximum sentence.

"Mr. Kimball chose to drink and drive and then maim and kill," said Bedell, whose son, Robert, 19, died. Kevin Gossic, 16, was the other victim who died.

Bedell later said he was satisfied with the sentence, but not with Kimball's compassion.

"Up until the last minute, he didn't really consider us," Bedell said. "We were prepared to sit through the trial. I don't think he could face up to it himself. He said he was changing the plea to protect victims, but he was protecting himself, too.

"I didn't see any real remorse throughout the whole thing. It has always been business as usual for him."

Maria Kerker, whose son Raymond suffered a severe leg injury in the drunk-driving accident, said she was pleased with the sentence, although the ordeal--including enormous publicity--has left her emotionally drained.

"It's just a tragedy for everyone concerned," she said from her Brandon home. "We're glad it is over. It's a hard thing to deal with. But drinking and driving has got to stop. I think this case will help stop it.

"Kimball, when he is out, will help people understand. Something good is going to come out of this, hopefully. People will kind of wake up.

"Bruce is going to have a lot to cope with. We have got to heal, but he has to live with what he did for the rest of his life."

Raymond Kerker, who played soccer at Brandon High School, has four pins holding his bones together and may receive a cast soon, his mother said.

"It looks like a shark took a big chunk out of his leg, but he'll be walking again soon," she said. "He's not the type to sit around. He's going to get back and do as much as he can."

Ron Tumoszwicz, president of the Florida chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said in a statement: "Although nothing will undo the violent devastation these families must face, Bruce Kimball must answer for his irresponsible and criminal behavior."

Kimball was free on bond before his Jan. 11 appearance, but since then has been held in a one-person cell and was checked every 15 minutes because his attorneys said they were concerned about his "self-destructive behavior."

His mother, Gail Kimball, told reporters the sentence was "stern, a stiff sentence," but said she believes her son will deal with it.

"Bruce has surmounted . . . odds before, and I believe very strongly that he will turn this around and that he will do his best to cope with this, and not only cope with it, but turn it into something where he can restructure his life in a manner that benefits other people," she said.

Fugate, a defense attorney, said the family was upset with the length of the sentence.

"They had hoped the judge would allow a much shorter prison term, and then requirements that Bruce share with the public his experiences to inspire others not to drink and drive and have the guts to rehabilitate themselves after an accident. Here's someone who can tell both sides of the equation."

Kimball survived a near-fatal crash 7 years ago near his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., when a woman driving a van crossed a double yellow line on a highway and crashed into Kimball's car.

Kimball remained silent during the hearing, but his attorney handed Coe a letter that Kimball had written to the court. Coe read the letter to himself, but the contents were not released because he had written it as part of a pre-sentence investigation, the file of which still is closed.

His parents said they had not seen the letter.

"I'm extremely proud of Bruce," said his father, Dick, the University of Michigan diving coach. "We'll be 100% behind him."

On Aug. 1, Kimball, who won a silver medal in platform diving at the 1984 Summer Olympics at Los Angeles, was driving his sports car at what police estimated to be 75 m.p.h. when it slammed into a group of young people and cars at a popular gathering spot on an unlighted dead-end stretch of a road near Brandon.

Kimball admitted that he had been drinking earlier in the day, and prosecutors said a blood-alcohol test administered that night recorded 0.20, twice the legal limit.

Kimball was in Brandon with a group of other divers training for the U.S. Olympic trials under the tutelage of his father, who has coached during the summer in Florida for 20 years.

A few weeks later, Kimball decided to continue his pursuit of another Olympic berth, and competed in the diving trials at Indianapolis despite opposition by friends of the victims and MADD. Kimball failed to qualify for the U.S. team.

"The guy has been a media event," Fugate said. "If it had been anyone else but Bruce Kimball, it wouldn't have been such a harsh sentence. He got 17 years . . . part of the reason is because who he was and what the case had become. By competing in trials, it hurt him."

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