Man in '99 fatal pleads guilty to new DUI charge

WOODSTOCK – Fourteen years after a drunken driving crash killed Eva Burleson and her three children, a former McHenry man who spent more than a decade behind bars for their deaths pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

Walter J. Depner, 62, of Mount Prospect, admitted Monday he was driving intoxicated February 2013, near the site of the crash that killed the 34-year-old mother and her children: Daniel, 13; Tiffany, 11; and Dallis, 7. The family dog also was killed.

Husband and father Thomas Burleson was seriously injured in the August 1999 crash, but survived. He said Monday he was disappointed but not surprised by Depner’s rearrest.

“The tragedy has not become any less tragic based on the passage of time,” Thomas Burleson said. “The real tragedy now is that he has been arrested again for basically the same crime.”

“The tragedy is that he just couldn’t stay clean or stay sober and he couldn’t stop making these mistakes,” said Burleson, who has since remarried and lives in Crystal Lake with his wife, Mollie, and their two sons.

Depner pleaded guilty Monday to aggravated driving under the influence and remaining traffic offenses were dropped as part of the plea deal accepted by McHenry County Judge Gordon Graham.

He entered a blind plea, meaning there was no agreement on a possible sentence between prosecutors and his defense attorney, Jeff Altman. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 29 – 15 years and eight days after the 1999 crash.

Because Depner is eligible for an extended term, he faces a possible prison sentence of five to 10 years. The charge is non-probationable, but he will be eligible for day for day credit.

Depner served 12 years of his 14-year prison sentence for reckless homicide for the crash that killed the Burleson family, and was on parole and driving without a license when he picked up the latest DUI charge.

Assistant State’s Attorney David Metnick said Depner ingested 30 to 40 Klonopin pills that were not prescribed to him before getting behind the wheel on Feb. 24, 2013.

Had the case gone to trial as scheduled for Monday, witnesses would have testified that they saw Depner weave in traffic, strike a center median, and eventually drive over a snowbank before stopping at the home of his former Lakemoor neighbors, Metnick said.

He told people there that he took a whole bottle of Klonopin and “hoped it was enough.” When police arrived, he was crying, slumped over, and only able to talk about the fatal crash.

His blood-alcohol content was below the legal limit at 0.03 and he tested positive for the prescription drug in his system.

After entering his guilty plea, Depner sat with his head down before being led away in handcuffs by courtroom security officers.

It was a different Depner than the man who appeared irreverent as he fought his earlier prosecution tooth and nail. He blamed Burleson for the crash and after one court appearance told the grieving husband and father: “You’ll get yours.”

Burleson said his home address was found in Depner’s prison cell, but said he has had no contact with the man who killed his family.

“Frankly, I don’t want him to apologize,” Burleson said. “I don’t want him near me. I don’t need him to apologize. I don’t want any interaction with that man.”

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