In a courtroom wrought with emotion, the man responsible for the May 2019 traffic death of a Hawaii Fire Department captain was sentenced on Friday.
Christopher Raymond Helmlinger, 21, pleaded no contest in November to manslaughter in connection with the multiple-car wreck on May 22, 2019, that killed David Mahon, a 49-year-old Kailua-Kona man who had a lengthy career with the fire department. The change of plea came less than a week before jury trial was set to commence on Dec. 3, 2019.
Kona Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino sentenced Helmlinger to eight years in prison after listening to statements from both Mahon’s and Helmlinger’s family members.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Frye said the nature and circumstances of the crash warranted a prison sentence.
“David Mahon is dead and it is 100% because of the defendant’s actions,” said Frye.
Mahon’s sister, Teresa Steans, told the court that she would never have forgiveness, but doesn’t carry any anger or hate, for Helmlinger.
“Serving a few years in your 20s is nothing,” she said. “He was a hero in the community. The wrong person died that day.”
Esther Milliken, mother of Mahon’s son, Dylan, who was not present, pointed out her child will grow up without a father.
“David had 30 years dedicated to service. We are all unlucky now. That morning David kissed Dylan and said ‘I love you son’ before he left for work,” she said. “I had to pick up our son from school and tell him the worst thing you can tell a child — his greatest hero is gone.”
No punishment is fair for Helmlinger, she added.
“I want him to feel remorse for the rest of his life. I hope he understands what he took from all of us,” Milliken said.
Mahon’s mother, Chris Anderson asked Helmlinger to look around the courtroom, which was filled with firefighters, to see the love the community had for her son.
“Now it’s gone,” she said. “You ignored all of the no-passing signs on the road. You could be dead right now if David was driving his truck.”
She implored Helmlinger to make something of his life and to share with people the consequences of his actions.
“Don’t ruin your life. Become a good man, that’s all I ask,” said Anderson.
Mahon’s father, Donal Mahon, also spoke to Helmlinger during the hearing.
“At some point, take responsibility for your wanton disregard for life,” he said. “As bad as it is for the rest of us, his son is going to grow up without a father.”
Helmlinger’s attorney, Michael Schlueter, said his client was taking responsibility for a Class A felony that will follow him for the rest of his life.
“Nothing compares to the suffering of David’s family and colleagues, but prison is not for people like Christopher. He has no priors. He may never recover from prison,” said Schlueter, recommending probation for Helmlinger. “Nothing the court does will heal the wounds, but I believe he has been changed to the core as a human.”
Helmlinger’s mother and father expressed their remorse to Mahon’s family and portrayed their son as a kind and sweet kid, who made a horrendous mistake.
“I am asking the court to save his life. It changed his life forever and it changed your life forever,” his mother said, sobbing as she addressed Mahon’s family.
Helmlinger, who was crying throughout the statements, also spoke to the family.
“Words cannot express how sorry I am. I made a horrible mistake in judgment that morning. I tore people apart. I can never make this better. I took a father, a son, a brother away because of a horrible mistake I made. I wish I could go back to that day and do things differently, but the damage is already done. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” he said choking back tears.
Before handing down the sentence, Fujino told Helmlinger that it was his choice to operate his Honda Pilot SUV in a reckless manner.
“You admitted you were in the wrong lane and passed several cars driving 70-75 mph because you were late for work. You appeared to have a mission to overtake all cars when there was room for you to get back in your lane. You disregarded the safety of others and yourself. You caused the death of Captain David Mahon. He was only 49 years old,” Fujino said after detailing the horrific scene of the crash.
Fujino went on to say that despite the letters he received saying what a good person Helmlinger was, Helmlinger was still responsible for the death of a man who was dedicated to saving lives.
“Do the best you can for your life,” Fujino said to Helmlinger, telling him that he needed to learn to forgive himself.
As Helmlinger was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs to begin serving his sentence, his mother was overcome with emotion, wailing and crumpling to the ground, inconsolable.
Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation Co-founder Laura Mallery-Sayre said there were no winners in this case.
“His time will end and he’ll come back,” she said of Helmlinger. “David never will.”
Schlueter, after the sentencing, said, “the biggest loss is David, his family and his son.”
“It’s a prison term versus a death. The reality is he (Helmlinger) took responsibility. He took a beating in the community for not making a statement before and for pleading no contest, but that was by my advise,” Schlueter said, noting this was the hardest case he has ever litigated.
Police say Helmlinger was driving a Kona-bound Honda Pilot and overtaking several vehicles in a no-passing zone when he collided head-on with the motorcycle Mahon was operating the morning of May 22, 2019. Mahon, an 18-year veteran of the Hawaii Fire Department, who’d been promoted to captain shortly before the crash, was headed to work in Hilo at the time of the fatal crash.
A third vehicle, a white Jeep Grand Cherokee, was also involved in the wreck. Neither Helmlinger nor the driver of the Jeep required medical attention.
The Hawaii Paroling Authority will set the minimum term Helmlinger will spend in prison.
“I am happy there is accountability, but it is a sad day for everyone,” said Anderson.