By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — A Methuen man accused of driving his SUV into a park bench, injuring a 71-year-old man who was sleeping there, was sentenced to 21/2 years in jail.
But Angel Suarez will avoid jail time because the sentence was suspended for three years.
Suarez must use a device that conducts alcohol screenings to be reviewed by probation officials. He also lost his driver’s license for two years, according to the court sentence.
Suarez, 66, of 3 May Court, Methuen, pleaded guilty to causing bodily injury while driving drunk and causing bodily injury. Police said he was driving drunk on the night of Aug. 31 at GAR Park, across the street from the Haverhill Public Library. Police said Suarez drove into the bench, causing Victor Welch of Haverhill to lose a finger and suffer other injuries.
Police said that after the crash, Suarez drove away from the park and traveled over the New Hampshire line into nearby Newton. There, his SUV went off the road and he was charged with driving while intoxicated, police said.
On Jan. 16, four months after the crash, Suarez was arraigned in Haverhill District Court on charges of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and three counts of leaving the scene of an accident with property damage.
At a hearing on April 23 in Haverhill District Court, Suarez went before Judge Patricia Dowling and pleaded guilty to the charge of drunken driving causing serious bodily injury, according to Carrie Kimball-Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
Kimball-Monahan said that in addition to Suarez being sentenced to 21/2 years in the house of correction, suspended for three years, he also received three years probation concurrent on the charge of leaving the scene of an accident with property damage, and must be on a Sobrietor device for one year. The remote alcohol breath-testing device conducts random alcohol screenings, she said. Suarez was also issued a statutory two-year loss of license.
Kimball-Monahan said prosecutor John DePaulo had requested six months of house arrest and the sobrietor.
She said the charges of assault and battery were nolle prossed because they were duplicative of the OUI serious bodily injury charge and the defendant could not be sentenced on both charges.
“The leaving the scene of personal injury was also nolle prossed because the facts did not support the contention that the defendant knew that he hit a person and recent case law requires that the person have knowledge that they hit someone,” she said.
At Suarez’s arraignment in January, prosecutor Stephen Patten said that after Suarez drove away from GAR Park, Newton police received a report of a vehicle off the road and went to the scene. There, they found Suarez. He failed a field sobriety test and was charged with drunken driving, police said. According to a Newton police report, Suarez agreed to a Breathalyzer test, which showed a blood alcohol level of .196.
“Police had to hold him up,” Patten said about field sobriety tests that were conducted by Newton police and which police said Suarez failed. “In addition, the defendant was in total disbelief that he was in New Hampshire.”
Defense lawyer Robert Lewin said Suarez accepted “full responsibility” by pleading guilty to drunken driving in New Hampshire and that he was scheduled to begin a drunk driver education program that week in New Hampshire.
Lewin said Suarez’s license to drive was revoked in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for an indefinite period.
Judge Stephen Abany released Suarez on several conditions, including that he not drive any vehicle, remain alcohol free, submit to drug and alcohol screenings, and install an “Intoxilator” device inside all the vehicles at his home.
“People are worried about dangerous people on the road,” Abany said at Suarez’s arraignment.
According to Haverhill police, on the night of Aug. 31, Patrolman Ronald Hilchey was on patrol about 10:30 p.m. when he was flagged down by a man on Locust Street. Police said the man described a dark-colored SUV that was operating erratically and ran red lights and stop signs.
Hilchey alerted the police dispatch center and drove up Winter Street.
As he approached GAR Park, he was flagged down by several people who told him a man had just been hit by a car. Hilchey put out an alert to be on the lookout for a dark colored Toyota 4Runner matching the description given by witnesses.
Police said a Trinity EMS ambulance transported the victim who was hit while on the park bench to Lawrence General Hospital and that he was later taken by helicopter to a Boston hospital. State troopers and Haverhill police followed a trail of liquid through part of Haverhill and onto Route 108, before the trail ended.
Police were able to identify the vehicle that crashed into Welch as Suarez’s, and when they went to his home, his wife said she had received a call about 11 p.m. from her husband, who asked her to go to Newton to bail him out of jail because he had been arrested for drunken driving.