A man who pleaded guilty to driving drunk resulting in the 2017 death of former Parke County Sheriff Mike Eslinger and his wife, Darla, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison, but will likely serve less than two years behind bars.
Bryan Robertson, 43, of Brazil, will serve the majority of that sentence on home detention and probation, at the order of Owen Circuit Court Judge Lori Thatcher Quillen.
Emotions ran high in the courtroom Wednesday, where family and friends of the Eslingers gave statements asking for the maximum 17-year sentence, while Robertson’s supporters asked for home detention.
Robertson was arrested the night of the crash on U.S. 41 about two miles south of Rockville. The Eslingers were passengers in a Nissan SUV driven by their then-17-year-old granddaughter, Josie, who also sustained back and leg injuries in the crash. Robertson was hospitalized, as was a passenger in his truck.
Robertson was originally charged in Parke County with two Level 5 felony counts of driving while intoxicated causing death and two Level 6 felony counts of driving while intoxicated resulting in serious bodily injury.
The court case was moved to Owen County from the Parke Circuit Court in June 2019 after Judge Sam Swaim said finding an impartial jury in the sparsely populated community would likely be a difficult task.
Swaim also cited public perception and whether residents would believe justice was being impartially served in a community where former Sheriff Michael Eslinger and his wife, Darla Eslinger, were held in high esteem.
Eslinger had served as an Indiana State Police officer for 10 years and served four terms as Parke County sheriff, first from 1979 to 1986, then 2007 to 2014. He also worked 20 years for the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.
Darla Eslinger had retired after many years as the county’s emergency management director.
In court Wednesday, Robertson admitted to drinking six to eight beers with work friends at a Rockville bar prior to driving on Dec. 21, 2017, and crashing into an oncoming vehicle driven by Josie Eslinger. Her grandparents died of their injuries at the scene on U.S. 41.
“They’re gone. They’re not coming back, judge. And this guy killed two of the most wonderful people in the world,” Jeff Eslinger said of his parents during the three-hour hearing in Spencer.
Prosecutor Don Vandermoere asked for a maximum penalty of 17 years with all four sentences served consecutively in prison.
Defense attorney Jessie Cook asked for home detention.
The judge ordered the maximum six-year sentence for each Level 5 felony with 18 months each to be served in the Indiana Department of Correction and the remaining time on probation. She also ordered the maximum 2.5-year sentence on both Level 6 felonies, suspending all but six months for both counts.
Of the 13 years suspended, Quillen said Robertson must serve time on home detention, and wear a SCRAM monitoring device for four years. His driving privileges were also suspended for eight years.
Credit will be given for almost a year served in jail following the crash, and for subsequent time on the SCRAM device awaiting trial.
“I remember everything,” Josie Eslinger said about the night of the crash.
Eslinger, now 20 and a student at IUPUI studying disaster preparedness, told the court she had just played in a basketball game for Riverton Parke against Southmont, and was driving home with her grandparents to get her car keys so she could retrieve her car from the school parking lot.
She said she saw Robertson’s oncoming truck go off the side of the road and then overcorrect into her lane.
“I just remember hearing everyone’s gasps as we watched the driver coming toward us,” Eslinger said.
Her vehicle overturned and she was trapped inside with her grandparents.
Her father, Eric Eslinger, said his daughter has been deeply affected by that traumatic night.
“For a young girl of 17 to be hanging upside down for 45 minutes with her grandparents’ blood on her, and she’s screaming to get her out, and they can’t get her out ...” Eslinger said of his daughter’s ordeal.
The rest of the family has also been traumatized, he said, particularly by the length of the criminal proceedings and by Robertson being released from jail after posting bond.
Longtime friend Roseann Nicholas said she was friends with Mike and Darla Eslinger for more than 50 years, and their children grew up together. The families celebrated holidays and planned vacations together.
Retired after lengthy careers in law enforcement and public service, the Eslingers were well-known in the county and state, and were national presenters on public safety, she said.
“He protected people like you, Mr. Robertson, from people like you,” she said of the late sheriff.
Son Mike Eslinger became a state police trooper because of his father, and has often had to make death notifications to families in tragic times. He said he was not prepared to get the same type of notification about his own family.
“This was not an accident. This was a crime,” Mike Eslinger said of the fatal crash.
His father believed in the criminal justice system, and the family is trying to uphold that belief, but it has been trying, the couple’s middle son said.
He pointed out that Robertson had two previous drunk driving convictions several years ago.
Becky Cvengros, daughter of Roseann Nicholas and wife of the current Parke County Prosecutor Steve Cvengros, said her husband was devastated by the deaths of the Eslingers. He would later request a special prosecutor be appointed in the case to remove an appearance of conflict, she said.
Robertson expressed his regrets about the incident during the hearing.
“I was up every morning thinking about it. I go to bed every night thinking about it. I’ll never be able to repay the debt I’ve made,” Robertson said on the witness stand.
He had joined work friends at a Rockville tavern to celebrate the upcoming Christmas vacation, he said, and he gave a ride to the co-worker who was also injured in the crash.
Soon after the crash, Robertson said, his wife filed for divorce. After spending months in jail, he was released to live with his parents north of Brazil.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, church and being a better father to his children have become important to him, he said, claiming he hadn’t realized how his social drinking had affected his family.
Robertson admitted to getting his first DUI charge in 2000, and a second one in 2004.
Explaining his situation to his children has been difficult, he said, and he wants to continue to be involved in their lives.
His mother, Rita Robertson, said her son has a lot of regret about the fatal crash and it weighs on his mind.
Defense attorney Cook explained to the Eslinger family that the long time frame for the case was a matter of multiple delays through attorney changes, a study on the road surface to look for defects, and evidentiary issues.
She noted a legal issue with a warrant used to get Robertson’s blood alcohol test results, as well as other contested issues.
She also pointed out that Robertson signed a plea agreement in Parke County several months ago, but it was rejected by the judge.
He agreed to plead guilty in Owen County to all of the charges without the benefit of a sentencing agreement.
Police said Robertson had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.117 percent. In Indiana, 0.08 percent BAC is the legal threshold.
Following the sentencing by Judge Quillen, Robertson was taken into custody by the Owen County Sheriff’s Department and booked into the Owen County Jail to await transport to the Indiana Department of Correction.