Woman gets home detention in Greenfield officer's hit-and-run death

Sue Ann Vanderbeck, right
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NEW CASTLE - The woman who struck and killed a police officer riding a bicycle on an Indiana highway will not go to prison.

A judge sentenced Sue Ann Vanderbeck, an Indianapolis nurse, to four years home detention for the hit-and-run that killed Greenfield Police Officer Will Phillips.

Monday's hearing was an emotional ordeal for two mothers. Vanderbeck was too fragile to read her own statement, according to her attorney. Leslie Phillips, Officer Phillips' widow, spoke to reporters.

Vanderbeck, 62, went home to her five-year-old son and two-year-old twins. That's where she'll serve a four-year sentence for fleeing the deadly accident that killed Officer Will Phillips last September.

"There would have been absolutely no good served by sending this mother of three who had never been in trouble, never had a traffic ticket in her life, to prison," said Steven Litz, Vanderbeck's attorney. "This is a good woman who has accepted responsibility for not stopping after an accident that killed a good man."

"For her to just get a smack on the hand. No," said Shirley Phillips, Officer Phillips' mother, shaking her head. "I think we need a better law system than what we got."

Officer Phillips' widow Leslie barely held it together. Through tears, she talked about the couple's two little boys missing their dad and living in fear.

Yet in a twist of justice, Vanderbeck wrote that she only took the plea deal to be with her children.

"Irony. It was very ironic. My kids lost something and she was worried about hers," said Lesley Phillips.

"I understand that, but the fact that Officer Phillips is dead is not Sue's fault. This was an accident," said Litz.

Phillips and two other Greenfield Police officers were on a late night endurance ride on U.S. 40 Sept. 30, 2010. In a 60-page confession, Vanderbeck admitted to striking Phillips but didn't think she hit him that hard.

Now, Vanderbeck blames the Greenfield Police Department for Phillips' death, claiming the officers were riding three abreast and violating Indiana law.

"The family would not even be in this position if the Greenfield Police Department had taken some very minor steps to make sure that their own officers were protected," said Litz.

"The evidence that we have suggests that they were not riding three abreast at the time of the impact," said Roy Tabor, attorney for Lesley Phillips.

It's clear from a wrongful death civil suit to be filed against Vanderbeck and the manufacturer of the bike and helmet used by Officer Phillip's the night he died who his widow blames.

"In no way, shape, or form, do I or my family hold the Greenfield Police Department responsible," Phillips said.

"Our procedures are going to stay the same. Our officers train at night because they work at night," said Chief John Jester, Greenfield Police Department.

"Even if she had stopped, there's absolutely nothing that she could have done. The testimony and evidence is that this man died on impact," said Litz.

At issue in the planned civil suit is whether the bicycle reflectors and helmet provided adequate illumination and protection.

Even though a year has passed since the officer's death, those in Greenfield still remember him. The road into the city's Riley Park is named in his memory and Monday's sentencing left residents with their own frustrations.

"I think that she should be sitting in jail. I don't think that she should be able to stay at home with her family," said Jennifer Holmes.

"I know it was an accident, but if she would have stayed, it would have been different, then I could understand, but she didn't stay, she left," said Gloria Brown. "That's the law for you."

"It was just a bad deal, as far as I'm concerned," said Jimmy Middleton.

Vanderbeck issued the following statement:

"The opportunity to make a public statement has been a very long time in coming, and I appreciate this forum to express three profoundly personal things.

First, I would like to publicly acknowledge the grief and sorrow that the Phillips family has endured following their loss of Officer Phillips. I am deeply sorry that my actions immediately after the accident created confusion and frustration for Mr. Phillips' wife, family, and loved ones. No words or deed will lessen their suffering, and I will carry that with me every day going forward.

In that spirit, I want to be very clear on why I accepted the plea offer extended by the Henry County prosecutor. My family, which includes my husband and three small children, is the most important priority in my life. We had difficulty in starting a family, therefore chose a non-traditional (and lengthy) process to have our wonderful 2 sons and daughter. Jonah is 5 and although he is autistic, he is a very bright and lovable child. Eli and Olivia are our 2 year old twins, and they require an equal amount of attention. I have always felt that raising your children well is the most important job in one's life. Therefore we decided that it would be best to accept the plea agreement to ensure that I would not have to be away from them during this critical time in their lives and we would both be available to continue helping Jonah to overcome his autism.

My third and final point is directed to the GPD regarding its bike program. I implore the GPD and its Chief to eliminate the safety risks created when its officers ride bicycles at night and in illegal formation.

In the weeks and months after the accident, I have given deep thought to the fact that this terrible tragedy CAN repeat itself unless the [Greenfield Police Department] takes responsible steps to ensure the safety of its officers AND the citizens who drive on U.S. 40. As citizens, we trust that the police department works for our safety rather than poses risks to unsuspecting drivers. No-one's life will be the same as a result of this tragedy. But the GPD and its chief have the choice as to whether they will prevent similar tragedies in the future."