Kaycee Smelser said she had never driven 95 mph and didn’t know she was driving that fast Jan. 25, 2018, 4 miles north of Wright when she lost control of her pickup on snowy, icy roads and slammed into a car heading toward Gillette on Highway 59.
Smelser, 34, was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison Tuesday for killing Jessica Cano De Najera, 26, in the crash.
Her death left a large void in the family, an emptiness her sons described Tuesday to the court and to about 40 family members and friends at the sentencing hearing.
“She was the most important part of my life,” son Christopher Najera said. “I could go to her with anything and everything.”
He spoke in court about their special friendship, reading on his cellphone through tears to find the words to describe their relationship.
“Since she’s gone, it’s not the same in my house anymore,” he said.
Another son, Adam Najera, wrote that she was the one to take them to sports practices or events — something they haven’t been able to do after her death. Her absence changed everything, particularly because she was such a happy person, they said.
“The holidays are painful and difficult without her,” Adam wrote. “It is lonely in our house now.”
He wrote that she helped him with his homework and encouraged him in school. They talked about what kind of graduation party he would have and how she would cheer for him at graduation.
Jessica was traveling that day to do work toward becoming a certified nursing assistant.
Her husband, Cipriano, described how she had left the house before him that day, kissing him goodbye — something he usually did.
Not long after, he came upon the accident and realized when he saw the back of the car that it was his wife’s. He helped her until paramedics arrived.
She died a short time later at Campbell County Memorial Hospital.
“I was holding her hand when she died,” he said.
Based on information the Wyoming Highway Patrol pieced together from the crash scene, Smelser was driving south on Highway 59 at about 95 mph in a 70 mph passing zone on an icy morning with blowing snow when she lost control of her Dodge Ram pickup and crossed the center line. Cano De Najera was heading north in her Dodge Journey at about 68 mph. She braked suddenly before the crash.
The two vehicles collided in Cano De Najera’s lane.
Cano De Najera’s car was pushed backward and spun around, while Smelser’s pickup went off the east side of the road and caught fire. Passing drivers helped put out the fire and worked with the Campbell County Fire Department to get Smelser out of the burning pickup.
Smelser, 34, who entered the courtroom using a cane, had significant injuries — ones that left her with about $4 million in medical debt. She said she didn’t remember anything from the crash and didn’t learn for a month that Najera had died.
Smelser pleaded no contest Nov. 28 to aggravated vehicular homicide.
Campbell County Attorney Ron Wirthwein said people note that Smelser wasn’t drunk, as though that should be a mitigating circumstance. That fact makes it worse, not better, he said.
“She was clear-headed,” and she still chose to speed, Wirthwein said.
District Judge John R. Perry said that few matters in criminal law are as difficult as aggravated vehicular homicide because the losses cannot be fixed.
“Nothing that I say, nothing that I do today will ever make this better,” he said.
Perry said that he considered the fact that Smelser had no criminal record, but that what happened that day “were truly life-changing … as a jurist I cannot ignore that,” he said.