SNOW HILL – A Berlin man who pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal accident in April was sentenced yesterday in District Court to 10 years in jail, all of which was suspended but two-and-a-half years.
Daniel M. Bren, 35, appeared in District Court yesterday morning for a sentencing hearing after pleading guilty in April to vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident for an incident on June 26, 2009 when he struck two bicyclists on the Route 50 bridge, killing one and injuring the other, before fleeing the scene and leading witnesses on a chase through West Ocean City before eventually being caught several miles from the scene.
Bren was sentenced to 10 years for the vehicular manslaughter conviction, of which all but 18 months was then suspended. He was also sentenced to one year in jail for the leaving the scene charge, which he will serve consecutive to the 18-month manslaughter sentence, netting Bren a total of two-and-a-half years in jail.
Bren was given credit for the 168 days he spent in jail since pleading guilty in April, but was not granted work release, despite pleas from his attorneys, for at least the first two years of his sentence. Upon completion of his sentence, Bren will serve probation for an undetermined amount of time. During his probation, he will be fitted with an ankle bracelet that will not allow him to consume any alcohol. In addition, Bren will be required to serve 250 hours of community service, which he will spend speaking to students at the three public high schools in the county about the dangers of drinking and driving.
According to the statement of facts, around 2:26 a.m. on June 26, 2009, a Maryland State Police investigation revealed a 2006 Chevrolet Silverado, driven by Bren, was traveling westbound in the far right lane of the bridge when it struck two bicyclists from behind.
The two victims, identified as Edward Joseph Zisk, 41, and Maxim Matuzov, 20, both of Ocean City, were ejected from their bicycles. Matuzov sustained non-life threatening injuries and was transported to PRMC for treatment. Zisk, however, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Bren continued west across the bridge after the collision and was later apprehended after an attempt to flee the scene. A taxicab with a fare was crossing the bridge at the same time and the driver and the customer witnessed the collision.
Before Bren was sentenced yesterday, District Court Judge Gerald Purnell wanted to hear testimony from those affected most by the tragic accident, including the victim’s sister, Kathleen Zisk, who painted a picture of her brother, Edward Zisk.
“I need to start by telling you a little something about my brother Eddy,” she said. “He was a brother, an uncle, a cousin and a friend and we all loved Eddy very much. He loved fishing and crabbing and loved food and cooking. He was a jack of all trades. Now, he’s gone and nothing that can be said or done here today can bring him back.”
Zisk then turned her attention to Bren, who was seated a few feet from her at the defense table.
“Now, I have to confront the man who killed my brother,” she said. “Why couldn’t you have taken a cab? If killing my brother wasn’t bad enough, you hit two people and fled the scene, fled the scene like a coward. You left my brother Eddy like road kill and fled the scene, dragging his bike for several miles.”
Zisk noted the irony of the location of the accident, pointing out the Route 50 Bridge was one of her brother’s favorite spots in Ocean City.
“We’ve been coming to Ocean City since we were babies and Eddy always loved the Route 50 Bridge,” she said. “He knew when we got to the bridge we were getting close and he saw the bright lights and called out to the fishermen on the bridge. How ironic is it that the bridge was his final resting place.”
Dorchester County Assistant State’s Attorney William Jones, who prosecuted the case, called the incident tragic, senseless, selfish and above all, avoidable.
“The common theme through all of this is not just drunk driving, but fleeing from the scene,” he said. “There are several words that come to mind; tragic, certainly, but also avoidable.”
Jones pointed out Bren’s leaving the scene was as grave and serious as the initial accident.
“Other words that come to mind are senseless and selfish, because Mr. Bren was selfish when he got behind the wheel,” he said. “He didn’t intend to kill anybody, but leaving the scene was certainly an intentional act.”
Defense attorney Leonard Stamm said he did not envy the judge’s position.
“You have a difficult job,” he said. “You obviously can’t undo what has been done and no sentence can bring the victim back. These cases are especially difficult, but sometimes they appear a lot worse than they actually are. Sometimes, things happen that are accidental, not intentional. There is no excuse, but unfortunately for Mr. Bren and Mr. Zisk, that’s what happened in this case.”
Stamm asked Purnell to consider a softer sentence for Bren and pointed out all of the things the defendant had done during his time in jail already including Alcoholic Anonymous counseling, home detention while awaiting trial, inpatient alcohol treatment and an outpatient program. He also pointed out Bren had been counseling fellow inmates while in jail.
“Looking at what he has done, I can’t recall a person who has done more to illustrate his remorse,” he said. “He is sincerely contrite. We’re asking the court to go along with the plea agreement. It’s a fair sentence. I know he’ll think about this accident for the rest of his life, but ultimately, it was just that, an accident.”
Stamm said whatever Purnell decided, he would hope the judge would consider at least some work release allowance for Bren.
“Our hope is that you would give him work release,” he said. “I would hate to see him sitting there wasting his time when he could be a productive member of society.”
Bren’s wife, Laura Deeley Bren, then addressed the court, saying the incident was a tragic accident, one Bren and his family would have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
“Dan’s a good husband and a good man who made a terrible mistake,” she said. “His actions every day since have been focused on somehow making this right. He can’t take away the pain and sadness, but he can, however, share his story so his message will help others. It’s the job of the court to establish an appropriate sentence and I understand Dan must be punished.”
Before Purnell was ready to mete out his sentence, however, he offered Bren a chance to speak on his own behalf.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the accident,” he said. “It was the darkest moment of my life knowing that I had taken a life. I’m prepared to accept responsibility for my terrible decisions. My story is one that I know will help others and I promise to continue to work hard every day to get that message out.”
Purnell then admonished Bren for his terrible decision, but perhaps more importantly, leaving the scene.
“This is a very sad and tragic day,” he said. “Certain things happen in life that you can’t take back and this is one of them. We can all imagine that no one that drinks and drives sets out to kill someone, but once an accident occurs, you have a duty to remain at the scene and render assistance. You have to stop, and you have to assist. Who knows, maybe you could have saved a life.”
With that said, Purnell was ready to hand down a sentence on the manslaughter charge.
“As to the manslaughter charge, I believe that it was not your intent to kill anyone, but your behavior was so reckless that that is exactly what happened,” he said. “What is a just sentence? I honestly don’t know. What we do is consult and listen and check the guidelines for similar cases. What does not make any sense to me is giving you work release. You should serve every single day of the sentence in jail.”