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Willmar man who hit blind man with vehicle is sentenced to 90 days in jail

A Willmar man will serve jail time and probation for driving his vehicle over a blind man in the crosswalk of a busy intersection.

Gary Lee Mattson, 56, was sentenced Wednesday to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and a year of probation on a misdemeanor charge of failure to stop for a blind person. The charge was filed after a Nov. 16 incident at First Street South and 19th Avenue in Willmar.

There, Mattson drove his vehicle over Thomas Sykora, 58, of Willmar.

"It is unbelievable that someone would leave the scene of an accident such as this," Judge Michael J. Thompson said before handing down the sentence in Kandiyohi County District Court. "We all make mistakes, but we have to be accountable for those mistakes."

Mattson's attorney, Daniel Eller, argued that Mattson was concerned about Sykora in the days after the crash but did not contact him to apologize because he was advised by his insurance company not to do so.

As part of his sentence, Mattson was also ordered to take a vision test, pay $540 in restitution and attend a victim impact panel.

Sykora has filed a civil lawsuit against Mattson. According to the suit, Sykora is seeking a judgment in excess of $50,000 and claims he suffered severe and life-threatening injuries due to Mattson's negligence. During the sentencing hearing, Sykora said he has hospital bills of more than $185,000.

After the hearing, Sykora said "the sentence doesn't begin to fit what I went through." He noted he is glad that Mattson was ordered to take the eye test to determine if he has retinitis pigmentosa. Ironically, Sykora lost his sight about 20 years ago to that same disease.

Mattson was ordered to begin serving 30 of the 90 days in jail on Monday. The remaining 60 days was stayed for one year. Two additional misdemeanor charges for failure to stop for a traffic signal and failure to give information after a traffic accident were dismissed, as part of a plea agreement reached last month.

Police reports in the court file indicate Mattson spoke briefly to a sheriff's deputy who had stopped for the accident and then left the scene. He was not located by law enforcement until several hours after the crash.

"He is sorry for what occurred. He is remorseful for what happened," Eller said during the hearing.

Mattson did not apologize to Sykora during the hearing, only noting that he had been told not to contact Sykora by the insurance company. He said he has no lack of remorse for his actions.

Both Eller and Mattson declined to comment after the hearing.

The incident left Sykora with 22 broken ribs, plus a broken scapula -- or shoulder blade -- and a broken ankle that required surgery. He was taken to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and was later airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital where he was hospitalized for about a month.

Sykora's daughter, Kelley Sykora, read her father's victim impact statement to the court. In the statement, he recounted his pain and suffering from the time of the incident, through the hospitalization and the recovery process.

"The impact of this offense has been huge to me, my life and my family," the statement read. "It has taken away a lot of my independence and mobility."

Along with much physical pain, Sykora stated that he suffered emotional harm and discovered "terrifying panic" when he began walking this spring with his guide dog Nectar. The panic came when he heard a car coming from behind him and feared the car would run him over. He is seeking counseling to address the issue.

Sykora was interviewed by the Tribune a week after the incident and said he and his guide dog Nectar waited one cycle of the traffic controls at the intersection before attempting to cross 19th Avenue on the west side of First Street. He said he was wearing a bright yellow jacket with strips of reflective tape sewn onto the fabric and had his walking cane with him.

According to the reports accompanying the citation, a Kandiyohi County sheriff's deputy, who recognized Mattson as the driver of a pickup stopped at the intersection, was first on the scene. A witness said he saw the pickup bounce up and down when it ran over Sykora, then stop on First Street. The witness said the driver got out of the vehicle, talked to the deputy and then drove away.

Police officers later located Mattson, who denied running over Sykora or striking anything with his vehicle. Some three hours after the incident, Mattson submitted to a breath test and blood test. Both were negative for alcohol.