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Army soldier sentenced for drunk driving crash that killed best friend, a fellow soldier

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A Highland Mills man who killed his best friend in a drunken-driving crash was sentenced Monday in Orange County Court to one and two-thirds to five years in prison.

Robert Higgins, 25, was driving on Route 32 in the Town of Woodbury about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2017, when the car collided with a tractor-trailer, killing 23-year-old Preston Jones of Fayetteville, N.C. The two men served together in the U.S. Army, and Jones was in Orange County visiting Higgins when the crash happened.

Higgins was indicted in March 2018 on vehicular manslaughter and DWI charges. His blood-alcohol concentration was measured at .22 percent, almost three times the legal limit for driving, after the crash. He pleaded guilty in October 2018 to second-degree vehicular manslaughter and DWI, with a recommended sentence of one to three years.

While awaiting sentence, Higgins was arrested in Nyack on a minor charge. That didn’t lead to a conviction, but the arrest violated his plea conditions, meaning he could get the maximum sentence of two and a third to seven years.

Jones’ fiancee, Samantha Read, spoke in court on Monday. She said he was quiet, but smart and funny, caring and thoughtful, her best friend.

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She spoke to him by phone a few hours before the crash, and she’s grateful for that two-minute call.

“I got to tell him ‘I love you.’ I got to hear his voice, and how happy he was,” she said.

She told Higgins she doesn’t blame him for what happened, and she believes Jones would want him to live his life and be happy.

“There’s no reason for two lives to be taken away,” Read said.

Given the family’s wishes, Assistant District Attorney Jason Rosenwasser said, he asked simply for an enhanced sentence for the plea violation. Jones chose to get in the car with Higgins, he said, but there were other motorists on the road, who Higgins endangered, he said.

Higgins’ lawyer, Benjamin Ostrer, cited his client’s military commendations, leadership, aid to fellow soldiers, his honorable discharge despite the circumstances, and Higgins’ dedication in jail to dealing with his alcohol issues.

Higgins apologized to Jones’ family and friends.

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“If there was a way to go back and take Preston’s place, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he said. He told Judge Craig Brown that he knew his actions were reckless and unforgivable, and that he was prepared to meet the consequences.

“I know I have a future that Preston does not,” Higgins said. “My actions have taken that away.”

Brown said his job is to hand down an appropriate sentence.

In addition to the sentence of one and two-thirds to five years for vehicular manslaughter and a concurrent year in jail on the DWI, Brown imposed $1,275 in fees, fines and surcharges and revoked Higgins’ driver’s license.

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© 2019 The Times Herald-Record