ST. JOSEPH — A woman who was drunk and traveling 111 mph when she slammed her car into another vehicle, killing a passenger in that vehicle, will spend at least four years in prison.

Amber Garton, 33, of Coloma, was sentenced to 4-15 years for operating while intoxicated causing the death of Erum Nazir, 33, from Oakville, Ontario, Canada. Garton pleaded no contest to the charge, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. A no contest plea is treated the same as a guilty plea for sentencing purposes, but cannot be used against a person in civil litigation.

The crash happened last Sept. 9 on I-94 in Benton Township. According to previous testimony, Garton was traveling 111 mph in her Ford Mustang when her car slammed into the back of a van carrying five people. Nazir, one of the passengers, was thrown from the van as it went airborne and rolled over twice, according to testimony at a previous hearing.

Garton failed a filed sobriety test and had a blood alcohol level of 0.190, more than twice the legal limit for alcohol while driving. Through a pre-sentence investigation, it came to light that she had a prior drunken driving conviction in 2009, and other drug and alcohol offenses as a teenager and an adult.

“When I sentence people, I look for red flags,” said Berrien County Trial Court Judge Gary Bruce, prior to sentencing Garton on Monday. “Your record is crawling with red flags.”

Garton, with her lawyer Paul Jancha Sr. at her side, wiped away tears and asked for leniency. 

“I want to apologize to the family. This mistake has changed my life, and I hope someday they can forgive me. I’m not a bad person. I try not to do bad things. Please find mercy for me,” she told the judge.

Bruce told Garton that some “Very, very nice, educated, successful people come in with drunken driving charges. As a judge in my 21st year, I remember some of the people I’ve sent to prison for this. It’s not just about you. I have to send a message, if you’ve got red flags, do something about it or something bad is going to happen.”

The judge noted that in a substance abuse assessment, Garton had stated, “When I drank I didn’t know when to stop.” He commended her for her honesty and for her participation in recovery since her arrest.

Nazir’s family did not make the eight-hour drive to Berrien County for Garton’s sentencing, but Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Trevor Maveal presented a letter to the judge from the deceased woman’s husband. The judge read the letter silently before sentencing.

Jancha asked the judge to sentence Garton to probation and a year in the county jail. 

“This is a lady who made a mistake. As egregious as any I’ve seen. Horrible. But while out on bond she’s been in daily therapy. She suffers every moment,” Jancha said. 

But Bruce told Garton, “You were going 111 mph with a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit, and because of that, a man lost his wife and some children lost their mother.”

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa