A Washington State man found guilty of trying to kill a South Dakota highway patrol trooper was sentenced Monday to 45 years in prison.
Donald Willingham, 36, was convicted by a jury in December of attempted murder and aggravated assault against Trooper Zachary Bader, as well as drug and firearm offenses.
The sentence came two and a half years after Bader stopped a Chevrolet Suburban for speeding along Interstate 90, near Box Elder. The SUV was carrying Willingham of Renton, Wash., and his three companions, who were en route from Seattle to Chicago with at least 40 pounds of marijuana, a handgun and $30,000 in cash, according to authorities.
Bader searched the vehicle, found marijuana and was about to handcuff Willingham when Willingham punched him to the ground. Bader lost consciousness and suffered serious injuries that morning of Oct. 24, 2015, including multiple facial fractures.
Police found Willingham and his companions later that day in Wall, where Willingham said he was preparing to turn himself in.
On Thursday morning, inside a packed Pennington County courtroom, State’s Attorney Mark Vargo asked for 50 years just on Willingham’s convictions for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.
Vargo said the attack was cruel in nature, nearly killed the trooper and resulted in permanent injuries. Bader testified at Willingham's trial that the assault left him with some double vision in one eye, a misaligned bite and numbness on the left side of his face, which has turned eating and shaving into more complicated everyday activities.
On top of this, Vargo said Willingham has been “utterly and completely unrepentant.”
Bader, who returned to work in October 2016, sat listening in the gallery’s first row, dressed in his brown trooper attire. He was surrounded by family and friends, including several law enforcement officers in uniform. There were about 50 people in the audience; some had to take seats in the jury box.
Vargo told Judge Wally Eklund that law enforcement officers deserve the judicial system’s protection given their mandate to stand up against “the degenerate, the amoral, the vile and the violent” in order to protect “the innocent and the vulnerable.”
An attack against law enforcement officers, Vargo said, was an attack against the community they represent.
Eklund sentenced Willingham to 25 years each on attempted murder and aggravated assault, ordering that the sentences run at the same time. The judge said he was tempted to impose consecutive sentences but was mindful of double jeopardy — a constitutional provision that prohibits multiple punishments for the same offense.
Eklund, a former 7th Circuit Judge who was ordered to remain on the case after his retirement in 2016, also sentenced Willingham to 15 years for marijuana possession and distribution, as well as five years for committing a felony with a firearm. He will be eligible for parole after serving 19.5 years.
Willingham was fined $120,000 and ordered to repay $146,000 in workers’ compensation, including Bader's medical expenses.
Willingham’s lawyer had asked the court for less than the maximum sentences, which would have added up to 105 years if run consecutively. Defense attorney Dennis Doherty gave several mitigating reasons, including that Willingham had no previous felony convictions and was relatively young.
Doherty maintained that Willingham’s two male companions during the traffic stop also assaulted Bader, as a defense witness said during trial.
Willingham spoke briefly: “I’m very sorry for the injury and harm to the officer. I apologize to the officer, his family and my family also.”
His three companions pleaded guilty in 2016 to drug and accessory charges. Eklund has sentenced them to prison time ranging from 1-1/2 years to 11 years.
Bader, 36, expressed his appreciation for the community’s support, saying in an interview that strangers still go up to him every day to thank him for his service. Last year, he was promoted to sergeant at the highway patrol, where he has worked for about 13 years.
When asked about the length of Willingham’s sentence, Bader said it was a decision outside his hands.
“I try not to think about that sort of thing,” he said. “I control what I control, and the courts will do the right thing.”