VERO BEACH - Jeff Carlson was a free man Monday afternoon after Judge Robert Pegg sentenced the former county commissioner to 18 months probation and about $25,000 worth of fines and court costs.
The circuit court judge also sentenced Carlson to the maximum allowed, 30 days in jail, but suspended that term unless Carlson violates his probation. Carlson is to perform 50 hours of community service, and be evaluated for substance abuse. He must pay $1,060 in fines, and pay about $24,000 for the costs of investigation and prosecution, but the exact amount will be determined later.
Carlson cried as character witnesses testified on his behalf, but did not react when sentenced. Afterwards, in the hall, he hugged dozens of family and friends who came to support him.
In August, witnesses told Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators that Carlson, then a Highlands County commissioner, had been drinking the night of July 24, 2010, before his 22-foot boat crashed into a channel marker near Capt. Hiram's Restaurant in Sebastian. His wife, Julie Carlson, 38, was fatally injured.
Carlson was charged with boating manslaughter and boating under the influence. A six-woman jury found him guilty of lesser included offenses.
When Orlando attorney Michael Snure asked everyone in the courtroom if they were there in support of Carlson, more than 50 of Highlands County's leaders stood, including Highlands Independent Bank President John Shoop, Julie's father Neal Noethlich, guidance counselor and friend Kelly Griffin, neighbor Sharon Keiber, Pastor Arthur C. Bryant, and Carlson's mother, Donna. All six asked the judge for the sentence he eventually gave.
No one asked that Carlson be required to serve time in jail. The crowd also included car dealer Alan Jay Wildstein, County Commissioner Don Elwell, Sebring City Clerk Kathy Haley, Susie Bishop and Sebring City Manager and Julie's brother, Scott Noethlich.
Neal Noethlich said his family discussed the matter and decided to ask the judge for leniency.
"With me is all the family as a family unit," Noethlich said. "We are the inlaws, and we are here in support of Jeff. This was an unfortunate and tragic accident."
Jeff and Julie Carlson's children, Morgan and Logan, lost their mother and best friend, Noethlich said. "We have great difficulty understanding what purpose may be served by loss of his capacity to serve as a father. It would make a difficult situation even worse. We are here asking for your compassionate consideration."
"Both children have maintained straight 'A' averages," Griffin said. The children have remained active in their schools communities, and Jeff Carlson has been able to take them to school and pick them up each day, she said.
"I would like to see them continue to be a family unit," said Griffin, who was also Julie's close friend.
Shoop, who served on boards with the Sebring accountant, said Carlson exemplified servant leadership. Carlson "improved the quality of life" in his community by establishing a youth triathlon and Julie's Fund for Kids. Carlson "will pay a price for the rest of his life," Shoop reasoned.
Bryant described Carlson "as torn up. He felt like it was his fault. He beat himself up. He has been thorough all the emotions. I never seen anybody hurt as hard or as sincere as Jeff. And if I may say something about parenting, which would have seen the parenting skills Jeff has. I would have drawn from his skills."