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Man who pleaded guilty to causing deaths of Mo. officer, K-9, pedestrian sentenced to 10 years in prison

The man’s vehicle slammed into Officer James Muhlbauer’s patrol car, killing him and his K-9 partner Champ; the impact caused the cruiser to strike and kill Jesse Eckes, a pedestrian

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By Robert A. Cronkleton
The Kansas City Star

JACKSON COUNTY, Mo. — A Jackson County judge sentenced a 20-year-old Tonganoxie man to 10 years in prison for causing a crash that killed two people, including a Kansas City police officer.

Jerron A. Lightfoot pleaded guilty in February to two counts of involuntary manslaughter for recklessly causing the deaths of Officer James Muhlbauer and Jesse Eckes, a 52-year-old bystander caught in the wreckage. Muhlbauer’s K-9 police dog, Champ, was also killed in the crash.

During a hearing Wednesday, Judge Sarah A. Castle sentenced Lightfoot to 10 years on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently.

Under terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors had agreed to cap their recommendations at 10 years in prison for each of the two felony convictions to be served concurrently.

Lightfoot’s attorney, Lance Sandage, asked the judge to consider a suspended sentence, which would have partially or entirely suspended the jail sentence as long as Lightfoot met all conditions of probation. As part of the conditions of probation, Sandage asked the judge to consider limiting his jailtime to a short period, also known as shock time.

Upon learning his sentence, Lightfoot was handcuffed and led out of the Jackson County courtroom.

In a written statement handed out to media following the hearing, Sandage said that Lightfoot took another step in accepting responsibility for his action.

“Mr. Lightfoot never intended to harm anyone but understands his reckless driving caused the death of Officer James M. Mulhbauer, Mr. Jesse Eckes, and officer Muhlbauer’s service dog, Champ,” Sandage said. “Mr. Lightfoot hopes today’s admission of guilt can begin the healing process of all those impacted by his actions.”

Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Muhlbauer’s widow, Cassie Muhlbauer said that they were very satisfied with the outcome and that they’ll “continue to live day-to-day and see where the next chapter takes us.”

“I felt like he should have definitely taken responsibility,” Cassie Muhlbauer told reporters. “And currently, I don’t think I can forgive him, but maybe in time.”

Video shows violent crash

The crash happened about 10:15 p.m. Feb. 15, 2023, while Muhlbauer was on patrol with Champ along Truman Road.

Authorities say Lightfoot barreled down Benton Boulevard in a white Ford Fusion, failing to stop for the red light. Lightfoot hit Muhlbauer’s car on the driver’s side, causing it to careen into Eckes, who was sitting on a concrete barrier.

The impact killed Muhlbauer, a celebrated officer, husband and father of three with 20 years of experience in law enforcement, and Champ. Eckes died after being pinned underneath the vehicle.

Lightfoot remained at the scene of the crash and told officers the reason for the crash was a malfunction of his brakes, according to a police affidavit.

Prosecutors charged Lightfoot the day after the crash, which came hours after the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory celebration over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII.

Kansas City Police Officer Karl Janning testified at the hearing that an airbag sensor showed that Lightfoot was accelerating moments before the crash. The sensor showed that he was traveling 84.9 mph five seconds before the crash and 89.7 mph two seconds before the crash.

At impact, Lightfoot’s car was traveling 62.3 mph, which Janning indicated that Lightfoot had used his brakes. There were also pre-impact tire marks indicating braking.

Prosecutors played surveillance video from a nearby business that had captured the crash. When the video showed the moment of impact, there was a hushed gasp in the courtroom. Members of Muhlbauer’s family wiped away tears with tissues.

Friends and family of Muhlbauer, police officers in uniform and family and friends of Lightfoot filled the downtown Kansas City courtroom for the sentencing Wednesday.

‘Never intended to hurt anyone’

During the hearing, Lightfoot told Judge Castle that he was truly sorry for his actions and that he “never intended to hurt anyone.”

Lightfoot said he thinks about the crash every day. He said he takes full responsibility. He said he knew it was a lot to ask, but he hoped that the victims families at some point would forgive him.

Eckes’ sister, Mandi Dunbar , told the judge that she didn’t know much of her brother’s life after losing contact with him. She said he had been homeless, and before his death had recently acquired a home.

Eckes had a big heart and was very giving, she said. While homeless, he sent money to a niece to help her buy diapers.

Dunbar argued against sentencing Lightfoot to prison, saying she didn’t believe in destroying another life. She said prison wouldn’t bring justice and it certainly wouldn’t bring the victims back.

Muhlbauer’s family and friends, however, asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence, saying Muhlbauer, 42, was a celebrated officer, husband and father of three with 20 years of experience in law enforcement.

Muhlbauer’s father, Vern Muhlbauer, recalled how he would end phone calls with his son, telling him, “Be safe out there.”

Vern Muhlbauer said the crash was not an accident.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Lauren Whiston addressed Lightfoot’s history with careless driving, including a ticket in 2021 for driving 87 mph in a 65 mph zone. He entered into a diversion agreement and the case was dismissed.

The violent deaths of Muhlbauer and Eckes were because of choices that Lightfoot made, Whiston said, and not some accident that just happened to occur.

In a statement released after the sentencing, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said, “The Kansas City Missouri Police Department and I will continue to be there and support the Muhlbauer family as they navigate this tragedy.”

Graves also thanked Jackson County prosecutors and traffic division detectives and investigators for their work, saying the police charged with investigating the case “had the unenviable task of investigating the death of their friend and co-worker, his K-9 partner, and the innocent bystander who all lost their lives in this senseless tragedy.”

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