Judge renders maximum allowable sentence in DUI case that left 2 motorcycle riders with severed limbs

L-R: Mary Lu Horkay and Robert Burnham VII at their home in Henderson, Nev., before the accident on May 4, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Mary Lu Horkay, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A local man was sentenced Tuesday for felony DUI during a hearing where District Judge Eric Ludlow heard from more than a dozen witnesses describing the life of two motorcycle riders before, during and after a crash on Old Highway 91 in May of last year that resulted in severed limbs for both riders.

Screen shot of Ryan Pletsch taken during sentencing hearing for felony DUI held via video at 5th District Court, Washington County, Utah, Jan. 20, 2021 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Dylan Ronald Pletsch, 24, of Las Vegas, Nevada, appeared via video for sentencing in 5th District Court on third-degree felony DUI. He was also charged with misdemeanor driving on a suspended license and having no vehicle insurance, as well as an infraction for driving left of center, charges the defendant pleaded guilty to during a hearing held Oct. 27.

The crash took place near mile marker 2  close to the Utah-Arizona border after a Mustang driven by Pletsch struck a motorcycle carrying two occupants: Mary Lu Horkay and Robert Burnham VII. Both riders were struck, and Horkay’s left leg was severed at the hip and Burnham’s left leg just below the knee.

Additionally, all of Burnham’s ribs on the left side, along with several other major bones, were either fractured or crushed – injuries that would require multiple surgeries, months of hospitalization and a major infection that nearly cost Burnham his life.

Horkay suffered blood loss that was so significant that by the time she arrived at St. George Regional Hospital she had only two of the 11 units of blood left when doctors began treating her.

Pletsch was arrested shortly after the crash and released from jail into a substance abuse treatment center. He returned to jail on Nov. 11 once he completed the program and has remained there ever since.

‘The adventure they were excited for was short lived’

Prosecutor Rachelle Shumway opened Tuesday by saying the defendant made choices in May that had a ripple effect impacting not only the two riders but also causing great harm to the couple’s family members, friends and the many bystanders who stopped to help the couple following the crash.

Intermountain Life Flight flies Mary Lu Horkay to St. George Regional Medical Center following crash that severed her leg on Old Highway 91, Washington County, Utah, May 4, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Mary Lu Horkay, St. George News

She went on to say the defendant’s worst day in jail cannot compare to either one of the rider’s best day since. Pletsch can go to the restroom without any difficulty, she said, and he can shoot basketball hoops in the courtyard and he doesn’t live with the chronic pain and complications that will plague Horkay and Burnham for the rest of their lives.

Shumway showed a photograph of the couple taken four hours prior to the crash, when they “were living their lives to the fullest,” adding that instead of the couple taking care of their parents, both Horkay’s and Burnham’s mothers had to travel great distances to care for their adult children. Shumway also described what it was like for the rider’s three children when they got the news of the incident and that their mother was in critical condition.

She said her concern is that Pletsch will commit a similar offense in the future that will either kill or injure someone else, adding his license was already suspended when the crash took place due to a DUI offense in Ohio reported in January 2020. In that case, the defendant was charged with physical control of a vehicle, which, under Ohio law, applies to an individual who has possession of an automobile keys but was not found driving when the arrest took place.

She also said she appreciated Pletsch pleading guilty to the charges instead of taking the case to trial, which would have caused further hardship on the couple and their families.

Cameron Nickelson, a bystanders with more than 10 years in emergency medicine who stopped and helped put a tourniquet on Horkay’s leg, outlined in court what he witnessed on the day of the crash. He said he saw the Mustang swerve multiple times, and he suspected the driver to be impaired.

He called 911 to report the driver, but that spot had no cell service, he said, so he left the call active until it could connect. As he did so, he said he looked up and saw the Mustang “literally go through the motorcycle,” and he knew something terrible had occurred.

Bystander places tourniquet on Mary Lu Horkay’s leg after it is severed in a motorcycle crash on Old Highway 91, Washington County, Utah, May 4, 2020 | File photo courtesy of Mary Lu Horkay, St. George News,

Horkay also addressed the court, saying that if Nickelson hadn’t taken her belt and used it as a tourniquet, she “would have bled out.”

She said it was three days before she was aware of what had actually happened to them and said that one of the witnesses found her leg and brought it to her in the event it could be reattached.

“‘Hey, I found your leg,'” Horkay said the witness told her, adding that from the knee down, the sock and shoe were still on it. “It was severed. That’s how violently we were hit.”

She said they later learned the Mustang was going approximately 80 mph when it struck the bike.

Horkay closed by describing what her life is like now: explaining to her grandson why she has “a robotic leg” and how she can no longer go grocery shopping on her own and will never drive the sportscar she purchased when she retired because it has a manual transmission and she “no longer has a leg to push the clutch in.”

She also thanked the many bystanders who stopped that day, calling them her “guardian angels” and adding that without them, “we certainly would have died out there that day.”

Mary Lu Horkay (shown at far right) with her three children, location, date not specified | File photo courtesy of Mary Lu Horkay, St. George News

Horkay was released after spending two months in the hospital, and she remained at the Jubilee House for another two months so she could be with Burnham until he was released. She described how painful the treatments were to Burnham to remove the infection from his severed leg — many of which he had to go through without anesthesia since he had been placed under general anesthesia so many times that it was too dangerous to continue its use.

Burnham spoke next and said he remembers the “excruciating” pain he experienced on a daily basis. He said it the little things became big things, like sitting up in bed, a maneuver that took more than a month and physical therapy to accomplish. It would be another month before he could maneuver his body to the edge of the bed.

He also described the traumatic brain injury he suffered and apologized to the court for having a difficult time expressing his thoughts.

Horkay’s daughter, Hollie Zoerner, also gave an emotional statement during the hearing, saying that May 4 started out as any other day, adding that her mother and Burnham went on the ride as “one last adventure” and that her mother sent her photos they took just hours before they headed out for the ride into Utah.

“The adventure they were excited for was short lived when Dylan (Pletsch) decided to get behind the wheel intoxicated and hit my mom and Robert, almost killing them,” she said.

She explained that a nurse at the hospital made contact with Horkay’s three adult children after he pulled up Horkay’s Facebook page to determine who her children were. The nurse sent a message to each of her children, Zoerner said, advising their mother was in an accident and was “in extremely critical condition.”

Zoerner said had it not been for the nurse who went out of his way to find them, they would not have known about the accident until much later. Not knowing how her mother was doing or being able to talk to her was “one of the most helpless feelings I’ve ever felt,” she said, adding that her father died in 2018, and her fear was that she would have to live without either parent.

It was days later that she would hear her mother’s voice, and she immediately broke down “knowing my mother was still alive,” she said, adding she was unable to book a flight to see Horkay due to COVID restrictions. She was left with the thought of her mother and Burnham being “alone in the hospital without anyone there to comfort them.”

L-R: Robert Burnham VII and Mary Lu Horkay recovering at St. George Regional Hospital in St. George , Utah, following a motorcycle crash in May 2020, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Horkay family, St. George News

To Pletsch, she said his actions “had changed their lives forever” and that his issues with alcohol have “forever altered our future.” Zoener also set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for their escalating medical costs shortly after the crash.

Horkay’s sister, Julie LiFoSjoe, also commented during the hearing and described the phone call that “no one ever, ever wants to receive,” adding they had no further details other than both may lose their left leg and were critical.

She said they were not allowed to visit them at the hospital and that the next several months “were a living nightmare.” She said the couple had to move to Texas following the crash, giving up their apartment because stairs were too difficult to navigate, as well as many of the activities they enjoyed prior to the crash that “senselessly shattered their lives.”

LiFoSjoe also described the torment she felt when she saw the fear in her sister’s eyes that was portrayed in many of the photos taken of the scene that day in May, photos that showed “my sister laying on the side of the road on the rocks and the dirt fighting for her life.”

To Pletsch, she said the defendant will never know the pain that now accompanies everyday tasks for both Horkay and Burnham – “like walking and putting your foot on the floor” – but she added that both have the strength needed to carry on.

“My sister’s life will never be destroyed by you,” she said.

‘I wish I could turn back the clock’

Pletsch defense attorney, Scott Garrett, said that his client is very remorseful about what happened and took responsibility for his actions when he turned himself back into the jail once he completed residential substance abuse treatment. Garrett asked the judge to sentence Pletsch to treatment instead of prison, saying it would be more appropriate and would allow his client to get the help he needs.

Pletsch also addressed the court, saying he does have a great deal of remorse.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what happened.”

“I just want you guys to know that I am terribly sorry,” he continued, adding he was very grateful that both of the victims were still alive. He said he would try and make the best of his life and that he is committed to living drug and alcohol free.

The defendant closed by saying he hoped he would be allowed to complete his sentence in a substance abuse treatment center but would accept whatever sentence he is given “with open arms.”

The judge said the defendant’s actions on that day, driving with almost three times the legal blood alcohol level limit, were “unconscionable.” He also said he received many letters on behalf of both the victims and the defendant, quoting one such letter sent to the court by one of Horkey’s friends, Peggy Keeting, who wrote that life is all about choices, both good and bad, and that everyone is free to choose.

Ludlow continued by saying the pain and agony suffered by the couple is “unimaginable,” and regardless of the sentence, he said, there was no way that justice would be served.

“I wish I could turn back the clock,” he said.

Instead of treatment the defense asked for, Ludlow thought Pletsch’s time would be better served in Utah State Prison, where the defendant will spend the next 0-5 years for third-degree felony DUI. He also ordered the sentences rendered on the misdemeanors to be served concurrently.

Ludlow closed by saying there were aggravating factors in the case that affected three lives, and the maximum sentence of five years “quite frankly isn’t justice in this case,” and he would have rendered a longer sentence if one were available. The order to transport Pletsch to Utah State Prison was signed during the hearing.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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