Three years ago, Victoria Zell bantered her way through a remarkable news conference as her husband vowed to split his Powerball jackpot with her, even though they were getting divorced at the time.
A different Victoria Zell was in Hennepin County District Court on Monday. With trembling hands her only visible reaction, Zell, 45, was convicted in a fatal high-speed collision that happened on a Minneapolis street corner on a Sunday afternoon in July, seconds after she had vowed to show two fellow passengers and drinking buddies how to "drive crazy."
The crash killed Joshua Schmidt, 30, of Stillwater, and left Amity Dimock, 31, of Minneapolis, with a severe spinal-cord injury. Both had been riding with Zell in her sport-utility vehicle when it blew two stop signs, reached speeds of between 59 and 71 miles per hour, and collided with a small pickup truck at the corner of E. 46th St. and 17th Av. S. The SUV spun, rolled over onto the driver's side and crashed roof-first into a tree. The driver of the pickup wasn't injured.
"This was a woman who had everything," said County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. "She squandered it away on drugs and drinking, and somebody was killed.
"This just goes to show you winning the Powerball doesn't guarantee you happiness."
Zell was found guilty of four counts of criminal vehicular homicide and four counts of criminal vehicular operation. The jury also authorized Judge John Holahan to impose a sentence more severe than recommended by state guidelines.
Prosecutors are asking Holahan to sentence Zell to eight years in prison, double the standard. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 22. The case hinged on whether Zell, a former surgical trauma nurse, had been driving or had been riding in the back seat at the time of the accident.
Prosecutors Mark Chasteen and Fred Karasov leaned heavily on evidence of blond hair in a cracked spot on the windshield where their expert witness said the driver's head would have hit it. Their witnesses contended that Zell, who is blond, hit the windshield in the collision with the pickup truck and was thrown out the open sunroof after the vehicle hit the tree. They said Schmidt, who had a shaved head, had been thrown from the back seat to the front, where he was found dead.
An expert prosecution witness also testified that the person in the least-damaged part of Zell's vehicle would have been the least injured. That was the driver's side. "The only person who could walk away was the only person who did," Chasteen said in his closing argument.
The prosecution's key witness was Dimock, who is undergoing therapy for paralysis in her legs and testified in a wheelchair. She told the jury that Zell, who was also her landlady, had taken the wheel of the vehicle after the group had stopped at a convenience store, so she could show the others how to "drive crazy."
Zell's attorney, Earl Gray, hammered at Dimock for her history of drug use and the fact that she is suing Zell for $2.7 million.
Gray had hung Zell's defense on the idea that Schmidt, not Zell, had been driving. Gray asserted that Zell had been in the back seat, not wearing a seat belt, but was thrown into the windshield and then out of the vehicle after it collided with the pickup truck, but before it rolled onto its side and into the tree.
A nearby resident saw Zell walking away from the accident. She was found later several blocks away, near her home, unconscious and with a broken shoulder. "The person that committed this crime died in that accident," Gray said in his final argument to the jury. After Monday's verdict, he said he believed there was plenty of reason to doubt the evidence against Zell.
"This is a classic example of how the American justice system doesn't always work," he said.
Zell had been drinking with Schmidt and Dimock at a bar in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis on the afternoon of the crash; all three were found to have cocaine and methamphetamines in their blood in addition to alcohol.
On Monday, prosecutors asked jurors to authorize a more severe sentence for Zell by arguing that she had placed people other than just Schimidt and Dimock at risk, that she had tried to blame others and that she had knowingly failed to assist the injured. The jury agreed with the first two points.
Schmidt's aunt, Connie Spaise, said Monday that if Zell had not tried to pin the blame on Schmidt, "the family would have forgiven her."
"This verdict isn't going to bring back Joshua," she said. "But it made Victoria Zell responsible for her actions. Justice prevailed."
Zell turned up in the public spotlight in December 2001, when her husband, Jeff Holmberg, said on television that he would split his $10.9 million Powerball jackpot with her even though the couple were in the process of a divorce. The issue went to court, and the final settlement has not been made public.
In the months between the accident and trial, Zell was charged with methamphetamine possession twice, including once for having the drug in her purse as she was checking into the county jail for having violated terms of her release on bail.