After a hearing Thursday that touched many times on pain, loss and forgiveness, a judge sentenced a former Madison man to eight years in prison for the high-speed drunken driving crash death of a Stoughton woman on Highway 51 last year.
Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara rejected a request by the attorney for Eric N. Ignarski, 40, of Kenosha, for a three-year prison sentence as simply “not enough.”
“I don’t think it contributes to a safer community,” McNamara said. “I don’t think it reflects the actual gravity and the harm. It’s too cheap.”
The crash killed Sierra L. Frisch, 47, whose car was struck head-on by Ignarski’s as she drove south on Highway 51 in the town of Dunn on Sept. 11, 2021. Ignarski was driving in the wrong lane — intentionally, some speculated — and had accelerated from 100 mph five seconds before the crash to 108.7 mph at the time of impact.
His blood alcohol concentration was nearly 0.25%, more than three times the 0.08% limit for drivers in Wisconsin.
With the eight-year sentence, McNamara also exceeded the six-year prison sentence recommended by Assistant District Attorney Tim Helmberger, part of a plea agreement under which Ignarski pleaded guilty in September to homicide by drunken driving. Ignarski will also serve four years of extended supervision after his release from prison.
Exactly how Ignarski wound up driving the way he did that night remains unclear, though supporters said he had been very depressed and uncharacteristically drank to excess that night. His sister, Dana Ignarski, said she had seen him earlier that day and he “acted like someone I had never met.”
“I have never seen my brother drunk before,” she said.
Aaron Irons, who was in a relationship with Ignarski until the day before the crash, said he broke things off with Ignarski because Ignarski had continued to slip deeper into depression despite any help Irons tried to give him. Irons said he feels “wracked with guilt” because the breakup may have set Ignarski onto a path that ended with the crash that killed Frisch.
McNamara said he still did not know where Ignarski had been and what he was doing for approximately three hours before the crash happened. A rough calculation factoring Ignarski’s weight and his nearly 0.25% blood alcohol concentration, McNamara said, showed that he would have had to have consumed around 14 drinks to reach that level.
“It’s shocking we don’t know where that happened,” McNamara said. “It’s also shocking that it’s something he’s never done before.”
Ignarski, who was badly injured in the crash, has no memory of events leading to it.
Members of Frisch’s family, while expressing some understanding of what Ignarski had been going through before the crash, said he would get out of prison one day and would still have his family and friends.
“And I don’t,” said Thomas Frisch, Sierra Frisch’s brother, “and my mom doesn’t and my whole family doesn’t.”
Sharon Frisch, Sierra’s mother, said she believes she will see her daughter again in the afterlife, and doesn’t want Ignarski to suffer pain or guilt.
“I would like to see your life be productive,” she said, adding that she wasn’t seeking a long sentence for him.
After speaking, she gave a long embrace to Ignarski’s mother, Deborah Rapey, who moments earlier had said to Sharon Frisch during a statement in court, “My mother’s heart is broken for you and your family. We are so very sorry for what happened.”
Ignarski said he still tries to make sense of what happened and said he would not blame Frisch’s family for being angry with him. He said he shoulders the blame for everything that happened, but has tried to learn about Frisch and volunteered at an animal shelter because Frisch was an animal lover.
“It’s surreal to be here today,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been in a really bad dream for the last 15 months. At some point, someone’s going to wake me up and say it was a dream, but it wasn’t.”
Depression, he said, “is a very real thing. I was not well. It does carry a very negative stigma, and I didn’t want to burden my family and friends, and that was a mistake. Not seeking help was a mistake.”
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