OCONTO – Instead of a keepsake to cherish, Dana Erickson says her mother’s charred wedding ring is an awful reminder of the drunken driving crash that claimed her life.
Travis Ragen made numerous wrong choices on Nov. 15, 2019, culminating in the death of Melissa Cota, 53, of Oconto, Erickson said Friday at Ragen sentencing hearing.
“Because of your choices, my mom is dead,” the Green Bay woman told Ragen and the gallery, which included about 35 family members and friends of the victim, all who wore buttons with Cota’s photo.
Ragen, 34, of Lena, was subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle by Oconto County Judge Michael T. Judge.
The sentence was less than Erickson and others hoped.
“I know nothing will bring my mom back, but the maximum allowable sentence of 15 years of prison would be a start,” Erickson said. “And it would send a message to our community … that drinking and driving have consequences … (though) it won’t ease the pain.”
However, the sentence was more than the 7½ years of initial confinement recommended to Judge by both the state and the defense, which Cota’s husband Jeremy called “a slap in the face to me and everyone else that was fortunate to have Missy in their life.”
Cota said driving by the crash site – about 5 miles west of Oconto, less than a mile from his home – is painful.
“You took one of the most kindhearted, gentle souls in the world from us …,” Cota said. “Missy had a big heart. She was sweetest person I knew. (Someone) who would do anything for anyone at any time.”
Wendy Thompson of Oconto said she was lost without her best friend of more than 40 years.
“You ripped out my heart the day you took her life,” Thompson told Ragen.
In their statements, Erickson, Cota and Thompson all said they were upset that Ragen hadn’t shown remorse in the last 2½ years.
“Do you feel sorry?” Erickson asked. “I’m not seeing it.”
Jill Charlier contended her nephew had shown “extreme remorse” and was “not the monster portrayed in social media.”
“He was on suicide watch (after the crash) and had said numerous times and he wishes it was him, and not her,” she said.
Charlier, who said she was a nurse with psychiatric qualifications, said Ragen had stopped taking psychotropic medication for depression before the crash, “which can have serious neurological consequences.”
She also addressed the Cota family.
“There’s not enough words to convey to you how sorry our family is,” Charlier said. “We hope you can someday find peace in your heart.”
The crash occurred about 11 p.m. when Ragen’s pickup entered the shoulder of westbound State 22 near Logtown Road. It was initially reported as a one-vehicle rollover in the ditch, with the vehicle on fire, because Cota’s car — pinned underneath Ragen’s truck in the ditch — was hidden from view.
It was not discovered until several moments after the first two Oconto County deputies arrived and explosions rocked the vehicles, the complaint states.
Ragen, who was dragged to safety by deputy moments earlier, received a broken hip and leg, along with facial lacerations.
The pickup pulling the loaded trailer turned into a “deadly weapon” in Ragen’s hands, special prosecutor Larry Lasee said.
“To lose a life is one thing, but to lose it in the manner that occurred in this particular case is almost unthinkable,” he said.
Lasee noted that Ragen continued to drink after he was released from jail. He was charged in two additional cases last October and January after former girlfriends told investigators about several incidents, including one in which Ragen was driving a boat that struck something in the water.
Defense attorney Dennis Melowski noted that Ragen had no previous criminal convictions, and was categorized in both the state’s presentence investigation and one commissioned by the defense as someone who was a low risk to reoffend.
Melowski said the joint recommendation of 7½ years in prison followed by eight years of supervised release is on the high side of sentences Judge issued in similar cases, and above the five-to-six-year terms recommended by the presentence investigations.
As for the drinking after the crash, he said studies have shown that people with traumatic brain injury – which Ragen suffered in the crash – have a propensity to self-medicate.
“They look for a coping mechanism because their brain chemistry has changed,” he said. “It’s unsurprising that someone who was depressed, had a traumatic brain injury, would continue to drink. It’s the only plausible explanation for a person who to that point never did anything wrong.”
Ragen’s lack of emotion purporting a lack of remorse shouldn’t be a surprise either, Melowski added.
“He has been heavily medicated (since the crash) on some very powerful anti-depressants,” he said.
Ragen, with eight of his family members seated behind him, said Melissa Cota did not deserve what happened to her.
“There isn’t a day that goes by in my life that (I don’t think) I would switch places so she could be here with her friends and family,” he said.
“No apology could ever start to make up for the remorse (I feel),” he added. “It’s all I have to offer. I can’t imagine what her family and friends are going through. I am truly sorry for what happened.”
Judge noted that before the crash Ragen was union millwright with an excellent employment record. In letters to the court, family and friends described him as being hardworking, a good person, kind and respectful, and trustworthy.
On the night of the crash, Judge said, Ragen had either five or eight mixed drinks over four hours – based on differing accounts. He left with the remainder of his last cocktail in a cup, and was involved in the crash just a few minutes later.
His blood alcohol concentration was later determined to be 0.21, or more than 2½ times the legal limit, Judge said.
The result was “a horrific death by Mrs. Cota, because of your drunk driving,” he said.
Judge also reminded Cota that a condition of his release, set at his initial appearance a month after the crash, was to not consume alcohol.
“I’m reading all these attributes about you, about how you are honest and respectful, trustworthy, and that isn’t the way it worked out,” Judge said.
Judge said the purpose of ordering absolute sobriety was to encourage a “pretty simple” change in behavior.
“Did you really take to heart what you did here?” Judge asked him. “Did you really understand and appreciate the loss that the Cota family has sustained as a result of your actions?”
Judge said the boat crash was “particularly galling” because he was drunk, and that Ragen – who suffered a broken arm in that accident – told people not to take him the hospital right away.
“Why? Because you wanted the alcohol concentration to dissipate,” Judge said, adding that having others lie for him brought “other people into your web of not being truthful.”
Judge concluded by saying the sentence should be a message to others who get behind the wheel after consuming too much alcohol.
“They are a danger to themselves and others,” he said. “I pray every day I’m on this bench that those type of recurring events in Oconto County can somehow be lessened.”
In addition to the nine years in prison, Judge ordered Ragen to serve nine months incarceration for one count of misdemeanor bail jumping.
Ragen had also pleaded no contest to that charge, reduced from felony bail jumping, which was among 12 charges filed over those latter two cases.
The nine months covers most of the 297 days jail credit Ragen received for time served.
Judge also ordered Ragen to subsequently serve six years on supervised release, during which time he is to maintain absolute sobriety, not have alcohol at his residence and not enter any tavern.
Ragen driver’s license was also revoked for eight years, and he was ordered to pay $3,616 fines, court costs and DNA surcharges, and $7,497 restitution and surcharges.
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Contact Kent Tempus at (920) 431-8226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.