This story was updated at 4 p.m. Thursday.A Tarrant County man accused of video-chatting when his vehicle crashed into another on Dec. 24, 2014, killing one and injuring three others in Denton, has pleaded guilty to a felony manslaughter charge in the case.
Garrett Wilhelm was 20 years old at the time of the wreck. The long-standing criminal case came to an end late Wednesday, less than two weeks before it was expected to go before a Denton County jury.
Wilhelm’s attorney, Ricky Perritt, called the plea deal a fair outcome, given the consequences Wilhelm otherwise faced for his role in the death of 5-year-old Moriah Modisette.
“He’s taken responsibility for it,” Perritt said.
The afternoon of the wreck, state troopers had pulled over a motorist near mile marker 81 just south of Denton. Moriah’s father, James Modisette, had brought the family’s Toyota Camry to a stop in the left lane. Bethany, Moriah’s mother, sat in the front passenger seat. In the back seat sat Moriah, on the driver’s side, and Isabella, her older sister.
Wilhelm was heading south from Gainesville toward his family’s home in Keller and apparently didn’t notice that traffic had stopped on the highway ahead. His Toyota 4Runner went up and over the driver’s side of the Modisette family car at 65 mph, according to a crash investigator.
The 4Runner moved with such force it pushed the Camry forward and around until it faced the wrong direction on the freeway, obliterating the car. The 4Runner ended up facing the wrong way, too, off the shoulder and in the grassy ditch farther south than the Camry.
And, according to court documents, Wilhelm’s video-chat app, called FaceTime, was still running on his iPhone.
Eight months later, a Denton County grand jury indicted him for manslaughter in the case, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in state prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Trial dates were delayed for years as prosecutors were unable to obtain assistance accessing the iPhone.
Two years after the crash, the family filed a product liability lawsuit against Apple, claiming the company was negligent in the case. Court documents showed Apple could disable FaceTime when a phone was in motion but opted not to do so. The case was ultimately dismissed; Apple officials would not say whether they were asked to cooperate in the Denton case.
The Denton County District Attorney’s office received a new indictment in the case last year, giving prosecutors more options to prove Wilhelm was using FaceTime at the time of the wreck.
First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said the office would not comment on the plea deal before sentencing.
According to court documents, Wilhelm agreed to plead guilty to the original felony charge but would receive deferred adjudication after five years. In other words, the felony charge will be dismissed if he fulfills the terms of the agreement, which includes serving 110 days in the Denton County Jail, paying court costs and a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution and stay out of trouble for the next five years.
He does not have a prior criminal history.
The plea deal is expected to be finalized during a sentencing hearing later this month.
Bethany Modisette, Moriah’s mother, was notified of the deal, but said she was still processing it all. The family planned on making comments at the hearing, she said.
“We will read to him what we have to say,” Modisette said.
The sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 24 in the 367th District Court, Judge Margaret Barnes presiding.