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Drunken driver sentenced to three years in prison for 2017 crash that caused UW-Madison student’s death

January 4, 2019

A woman who was driving drunk and didn’t stop after her car struck a UW-Madison student in 2017 as she crossed a street with friends, causing injuries that months later resulted in the student’s death, was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison.

“There’s no expectation that you’re going to rot in prison,” Circuit Judge William Hanrahan told Nicole Bruns, 25, of Waunakee, whose car hit Alexandra Ihm, 21, as she crossed North Randall Street at Regent Street early on Jan. 15, 2017. “I fully expect that you will flourish in prison. That you will work day by day to show true remorse, not just speak words in a courtroom but to show true remorse.”

Bruns drove through a flashing red traffic light without stopping about 2:30 a.m., striking Ihm and narrowly missing two other people, including Ihm’s boyfriend, Nick Debner.

“It’s a scene I’ve replayed in my head every day since then,” Debner wrote in a letter to Hanrahan. “A moment I’ll always speculate about what I could have done differently. While I am beyond thankful that she initially survived, and for the 49 additional days I got to spend with Alexandra, 49 days were not enough.”

Bruns pleaded no contest in October to homicide by drunken driving. Among the charges dismissed under a plea agreement was hit and run causing death, though Hanrahan was allowed to take that charge into consideration when he sentenced Bruns on the homicide conviction.

When she was stopped in Middleton about 10 minutes after the crash, Bruns’ blood alcohol concentration was 0.14 percent, nearly twice the legal limit for drivers in Wisconsin.

Hanrahan said he reviewed video of the crash taken by a city street camera and saw the brake lights of Bruns’ car flash on just before she struck Ihm, then saw her car accelerate away. Bruns has maintained, and still did in court on Thursday, that she did not know she had struck anyone, an idea that puzzled Hanrahan.

“Maybe you thought you hit a car, I don’t know how you explain it, that’s a narrative that you reconstructed after the fact because you didn’t remember, you didn’t care to remember, or you wished to save face,” Hanrahan said.

Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser, who asked for a 12-year prison sentence followed by six years of extended supervision, said he didn’t think it was realistic to believe that Bruns didn’t know she had struck something.

Bruns’ lawyer, Jessa Nicholson Goetz, asked for five years of probation, while a state Department of Corrections pre-sentence report recommended three years in prison followed by three years of extended supervision, the sentence Hanrahan ultimately handed down.

Although Ihm was severely injured, she still tried to attend classes in a wheelchair that she couldn’t push on her own because of an elbow injury, and had to move back home to rural Hollandale so that her parents could help her. She was in almost constant pain but still commuted to school.

“She was always fiercely independent, so all of this was hard to take,” said Alexandra Ihm’s mother, Connie Ihm.

Ihm described how angry and frustrated her daughter became at times, particularly in the hours before she died. Ihm had driven her home from UW-Madison, then ran an errand. When she got home, she learned from her husband that something was seriously wrong with their daughter. She was on the bathroom floor, panting, telling her parents she couldn’t see and couldn’t breathe.

After asking for help, Ihm said, her daughter stopped breathing. Medical attention could not save her life, and she died from a pulmonary embolism, a clot attributed to the injuries she sustained in the crash.

Ihm said she mourns knowing that her daughter will never be the teacher she planned to become, depriving perhaps thousands of children of her talents.

“None of us are the people we used to be,” Ihm said. “We’re shadows of our former selves and there is just no end in sight.”

She was also critical of a Facebook post Bruns created after the crash, but before Alexandra Ihm had died, which said something similar to “You have a few drinks with friends and your life is ruined. LOL.”

LOL stands for “laugh out loud.”

Bruns said the post was something that someone else had written but she shared.

Hanrahan said the “laugh out loud” part was most galling and asked what there was to laugh about. Bruns said the post was “self-deprecating, it was naive, it was stupid. I feel terrible about it.”

Nicholson Goetz said that despite criticism from others that Bruns hadn’t expressed remorse, she had herself prevented Bruns from contacting or sending letters to the Ihm family while the criminal case was pending.

Bruns told Hanrahan that Ihm’s death has weighed heavily on her.

“I feel I do not love myself the same,” she said. “I feel terrible guilt always, knowing that Alexandra’s not here because of me. I don’t enjoy things the same and I don’t leave the house much. I feel alone even when I’m in rooms full of people.

“Your honor, I take full responsibility for my actions that night that led to this tragedy,” Bruns told Hanrahan. “I feel I am ready to accept the consequences for my actions.”

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