Light sentence predicted for Cold Stone heiress

By Ray Stern

Savannah Sutherland, daughter of the founders of Cold Stone Creamery, hired top-notch attorneys after she plowed into a small motor scooter late one night while drunk, killing another woman.

But it's actually a "different idea of justice" from the dead woman's nephew that will get her off with a relatively light sentence, says a source close to the victim's family.

When Sutherland, 23, is sentenced at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Andrew Klein, she's expected to get only three or four years in prison, less than the five years' minimum her plea deal calls for.

Sutherland initially pleaded not guilty in the March 2006 case after hiring seasoned attorneys Barry Mitchell and former Arizona U.S. Attorney Mel McDonald.

After two years of wrangling, the hard facts of the case made it too tough to beat. In March, Sutherland accepted a plea deal that stipulated a minimum five-to-10 years behind bars for killing Genovena Tepec-Juarez, a 36-year-old Mesa resident.

Prosecutors recommended a "slightly aggravated" term of six and a half years because Sutherland was so hammered when she slammed her car into the back of Tepec-Juarez's motor scooter near Baseline and Sossaman roads.

Court records state that Sutherland, who also lives in Mesa, had been going 70 m.p.h. in a 45 m.p.h. zone two seconds before she hit Tepec-Juarez, who was traveling under 30 m.p.h. on the scooter. Sutherland's blood-alcohol level two hours after the wreck was .194.

Phoenix lawyer Mitchell says the victim's nephew, Nestor Tepec, who was like a son to Tepec-Juarez, is displaying more mercy than he's ever seen in cases that involve a death. Tepec is expected to appear at Thursday's sentencing to argue that Sutherland get less than five years.

"He's a beautiful young man," Mitchell says of Tepec.

A woman connected with the family who did not wish to be named, however, says Tepec's motivation in asking for a lighter sentence for Sutherland has nothing to do with mercy. Tepec wants Sutherland to serve 1,000 hours or more of community service, in addition to a term of probation when she gets out of prison.

The woman tells New Times that the new plea is likely to be accepted by the judge.

Tepec, whose primary language is Spanish, "feels that a long-term incarceration does not help the community and does not honor his aunt’s memory," the woman says.

Tepec believes his plan would actually be a harsher penalty for Sutherland than her merely serving five years. And it would be "more responsible to the community," because the community service will involve speaking to high school and college students about drunk driving, she says.

With a lesser prison term, she'll be younger when she gets out, and therefore better able to "connect" with the students she warns, the woman says.

Sutherland's parents, Donald and Susan, opened the first Cold Stone Creamery store in Tempe in 1988. By 2005, the chain had 1,000 stores.

Last year, Savannah Sutherland -- who has been out on bail since her arrest -- asked to leave the state to go on a family cruise.

Tepec's life isn't filled with such luxuries. He still lives in the house where his aunt, who he considers a "mother figure," raised him, court documents show.

"Tepec's feelings of emptiness now permeate every corner of that home and serve as a painful daily reminder of what he has lost," a crime victim's memo to the court states. "Tepec knows that nothing can bring Genovena back to him, but he hopes that other people can be helped and other tragedies avoided as a result of this case."

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