I can't take the pain away, and that's what kills me. And it is totally my fault, and my stupid, irresponsible decisions, and it's not OK. And just know that I'm not a person that it doesn't affect. It does. It does affect me. I owe it to the victims … that I have to do something different. —Leah Shelton
UTAH STATE PRISON — For three years, Leah Shelton had been looking forward to her first parole hearing.
It's not because she was eager to be released from the Utah State Prison. Rather, she wanted to apologize in person to the family of the two people who died as a result of her actions.
"I am so sorry," a tearful Shelton said at her parole hearing Tuesday. "I'm really hoping that they can understand that in their hearts and get some sort of closure and healing from it. I just can't say 'I'm sorry' enough."
On Aug. 1, 2011, Shelton was driving a moving van from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Tucson, Arizona, with her two daughters, ages 5 and 6.
About 6:30 p.m., on U.S. 191 about 10 miles outside of Blanding, Shelton's truck drifted into oncoming traffic and hit a Buick head-on.
John Eaton, 84, and Mary Erva Eaton, 89, of Blanding, were killed. One of Shelton's daughters, who had unbuckled her child seat, suffered serious injuries and was flown to a children's hospital in Phoenix.
Shelton, 32, was convicted in 2012 of two counts of automobile homicide, a third-degree felony, and sentenced to up to five years in the Utah State Prison. If she serves her entire time, she will be released in May 2017.
Shelton had used methamphetamine less than 24 hours prior to the crash, and she had taken prescription medication, police said. In addition, she did not have a valid driver's license or auto insurance.
"I can't take the pain away, and that's what kills me," she said Tuesday. "And it is totally my fault, and my stupid, irresponsible decisions, and it's not OK. And just know that I'm not a person that it doesn't affect. It does. It does affect me. I owe it to the victims that I have to do something different."
During the hearing, Shelton recounted for parole board chairwoman Angela Micklos how she was checking on her daughters at the time of the crash.
"I was driving and looking around and thinking about how there wasn't much scenery around, and I looked at my daughters and they were both sleeping," Shelton recalled. "The next thing I do is I look up, and there was just something there, and it was as if a bomb went off."
Shelton, who has battled drug addiction for most of her life, said she was anxious to leave a bad marriage and move away. She said she was nervous about driving the moving truck, in addition to having anxiety about several other issues in her personal life. So Shelton chose to cope by doing drugs, she said.
On Tuesday, Shelton stressed that she didn't want it to sound like she was making excuses, but rather was just trying to explain what happened.
"I made a series of awful decisions around that time," she said. "Lots of different things were going on. And I really don't have any excuse. I used drugs the day before I planned to leave. At the time, it seemed like the right choice, as crazy as that sounds."
Even though she left her house about 9 a.m., Shelton said she was so stressed that she kept stopping at every rest stop and opportunity she could.
Now, Shelton said she is done with drugs and wants to help others who are struggling with addiction.
"I fear using (drugs) now. The thought of it scares me (in) a way I can't describe, not only because of this situation," she said. "But I have to live with the memories of what happened forever. I have to know that I caused so many people pain. I'm sick that this happened. But I think it's what had to happen for me to figure it out, and that sounds so terrible. I wish it wasn't."
Shelton said she had also been deeply affected by her own mother's death while she was in prison and not being able to talk to her one last time. On top of those losses, Shelton's two daughters have since been adopted by another family.
Five members of the Eaton family were also present at Tuesday's hearing, including John and Mary Eaton's children. Daughter Sherrie Shuman said what happened was heartbreaking and will always be hard for the family. Based on how long her mother's mother and grandmother had lived, Shuman said she believes Mary still had 14 good years left.
"I just figured she had lots of life still in her, and this pretty much stole it away, I felt like," she said. "Maybe it was time to go. I just felt cheated."
But Shuman also said it's not in her family's nature to hold grudges, and they hope Shelton will use the tragedy to turn her life around and better herself.
"I hope that you make the best and most of your life as you can, productive and doing all you can to help other people as well as yourself," Shuman said.
Micklos acknowledged that Shelton had completed every program possible for her situation while in prison and that keeping her at this point would essentially be warehousing her. However, she said no one can put a price or set an appropriate amount of time on two lives.
The full Board of Pardons and Parole will now vote on whether to set an early release date for Shelton or set a new parole date for a future hearing.
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