SOMERVILLE, NJ – Christopher T. Rafano became a convicted felon today, but he didn’t receive a prison sentence.
Instead, sitting in Superior Court here, Judge Yolanda Ciccone sentenced him to non-custodial probation for three years. But she cautioned Rafano that if he violates the terms of his probation, he could be sentenced to the maximum five-year prison term for the charge of strict liability in a vehicular homicide.
“I can’t say that I know how they feel,” said Attorney Victor Rotolo, who represented Rafano, about those still mourning the death of William D. Hildebrant, the 34-year-old Califon resident who died after being thrown from Rafano’s ATV on July 28. He called the matter a tragedy for everyone involved.
Ciccone’s courtroom was packed with family and friends of Rafano.
Rafano had been charged with 12 motor vehicle charges in connection with the accident on Kiceniuk Road in Clinton Township, including operating a motor vehicle under the influence of liquor or drugs, careless driving, reckless driving, no liability insurance, leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury, failure to report an accident, driving an unregistered motor vehicle, operating an ATV without a helmet, operating an ATV on a public street and operating a vehicle in an unsafe condition.
After weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors in the case, Ciccone dismissed those charges, and accepted his guilty plea on the vehicular homicide charge.
Rotolo said Rafano and his wife – Melissa Murphy, who owns Sweet Melissa’s Patisserie on in Clinton Township – “work constantly” and rarely get time off. But on July 28, their 6-year-old son was with grandparents, giving them a rare opportunity for some adult time and putting them in a “festive mood.”
Rotolo called the media “very aggressive” in pursuing details on the case. In 38 years as an attorney, he said the “vitriol, anger” and aggression that followed the media reports were something he’d never seen previously.
Officials initially released only scant details on the case, frustrating Hildebrant’s friends and family. The secrecy led to a lawsuit filed by TAPinto and the release of the records.
Rotolo noted Rafano’s blood-alcohol level at .074 was within the legal limit, but acknowledged Rafano had a previous conviction for driving while intoxicated in 2013.
Rotolo blamed a dip in Kiceniuk Road for causing Hildebrant to fall from the ATV, and said he’s not aware of any other road in Hunterdon with an equivalent hazard. Rafano was carrying passengers on the ATV that was only intended to be driven by the driver, Rotolo said, adding that “all four people made a poor decision” on that fateful day. Alcohol was involved and none of them were wearing helmets.
Rotolo described Rafano as “highly remorseful” and said there was “no deal, no conspiracy” in the plea agreement that the judge accepted.
Reading from a prepared statement, Rafano said he was “deeply sorry” for Hildebrant’s death.
“I pray every night for Bill,” Rafano said. “This night was not a party night … it was a rare evening, free to ourselves.”He said Hildebrant was a friend he’d known for 20 years and the accident was “the scariest thing that ever happened to me.”
The Assistant Prosecutor handling the case placed a photo of Hildebrant to his side, facing the judge. “The facts and circumstances of this case are unique,” he said.
Hildebrant’s mother choked back tears describing her life in the wake of her son’s death.
“There is an emptiness inside of me … that will haunt me forever,” she said. For the rest of her life, she said she “must balance grief with the joy of living.”
Speaking as a friend of Hildebrant and his family, Patrick Duffy told the court he and Hildebrant “were inseparable growing up” and shared “friendship, brotherhood.” He called the voices heard on the 911 call after the accident “callous, indifferent,” and pleaded for the judge to order the maximum sentence.
Ciccone called the accident a “tragedy … that cannot be ignored.” But she went through the list of aggravating and mitigating factors and said the sentence must be “tailored to the defendant, and not just the crime.”