Poplar Bluff man pleads guilty in fatal hit-and-run case

Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Randel Craig Sparks

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A Poplar Bluff, Missouri, man pre-empted his upcoming trial by pleading guilty Friday morning in connection with a December 2015 hit-and-run accident that killed a local teenager, Heavenly Grace Hafford.

Randel Craig Sparks, 43, pleaded guilty to the Class D felonies of leaving the scene of a motor-vehicle accident and tampering with physical evidence before Judge David Jones in Greene County after Butler County assistant prosecuting attorney Paul Oesterreicher filed amended information with the court.

Oesterreicher said the amended information he filed cleared up minor mistakes in the original information.

The amended information, he said, also charged Sparks as a prior offender; Sparks had pleaded guilty to the Class B felony of first-degree assault in Dunklin County in May 2004.

Oesterreicher said that status would have taken punishment away from the jury, but “since he pled, it will not do anything for the sentence.”

Heavenly Grace Hafford

Oesterreicher said he and Sparks’ lawyer, Steve Lynxwiler of the Public Defender’s Office, will argue what the punishment should be at sentencing.

Jones set sentencing for 11 a.m. Oct. 20.

Oesterreicher said Sparks’ plea is the result of negotiations between himself and Lynxwiler.

“Mr. Lynxwiler and I discussed the case; he just felt that was the best way to” resolve it, Oesterreicher said.

Lynxwiler said Oesterreicher made an offer of three years in prison on each of the counts, but the prosecutor made an offer that the prison terms be consecutive.

“After Randy and I talked, we felt it was best that he admit to what he did, and he certainly was willing to do that; then we’ll hope for some leniency from the court. That’s all we can do,” Lynxwiler said.

Lynxwiler said his client “didn’t really explain,” but he admitted to the court what he was guilty of doing. He described his client as being “very emotional through this whole process.”

Lynxwiler said Sparks is “owning his action; he’s saying: ‘What I did was wrong.’”

Sparks was supposed to stand trial Monday in Greene County, Missouri.

Hafford, 13, died of blunt-force trauma. She was struck by two vehicles at 7:15 p.m. Dec. 9, 2015, as she crossed Kanell Boulevard near the Maud Street intersection in Poplar Bluff.

The junior-high student was walking home with a friend. She had been to Mansion Mall to buy shoes for an upcoming school choir recital.

The first vehicle that struck the teen was a rusty, light-blue Volkswagen Beetle.

That vehicle was found shortly after the crash. Its driver, Sparks, who was destroying evidence on his vehicle, was arrested.

Authorities said a second vehicle traveling a short distance behind Sparks’ vehicle also ran over Hafford and left the scene.

That vehicle was believed to be a late-model Ford F-150 pickup.

Officers impounded the suspected truck after locating it on a business parking lot in Poplar Bluff.

The truck’s owner, Benjamin J. Ressel, then a prominent local businessman, was arrested.

Investigators found what was described as suspected “biological material” on the undercarriage of Ressel’s truck.

Ressel, 40, is charged with the Class D felonies of leaving the scene of a motor-vehicle accident and tampering with physical evidence, having been indicted in February by a Butler County grand jury.

He subsequently was granted a change of venue to Pemiscot County.

Ressel’s case is set for a bench trial Sept. 11 before Circuit Judge Fred Copeland.

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