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Driver sent to jail for death of Indiana County bicyclist

| Friday, July 13, 2012, 1:02 p.m.
Barry Reeger/Tribune-Review
BLR Pearce14 3.jpg This is a family provided photograph of Sean Pearce taken on May 28, 2005 at his sister Shannon Anderson’s wedding. Pearce was killed on July 15, 2005 by a hit and run driver while bicycling along Route 119 in Burrell Township, Indiana County. The case remains unsolved. REEGER PHOTO
After releasing balloons into the sky in memory of her late son, Sean Pearce, Darla Hilliard of Blairsville watches as they float away while holding her son's dog, Jazzie, at her Blairsville home on Friday, July 13, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Shannon Anderson of Cincinnati, sister of the late Sean Pearce, 29, of Burrell Township, hugs family friend, Jolene Cribbs, 8, of Blairsville, during a gathering of family and friends on July 13, 2012. It was the day that Gregory T. Wisneski Jr., of White Township, was sentenced for leaving the scene after his car fatally struck Pearce on Route 119 in Indiana County seven years ago. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Closure came Friday for an Indiana County family in the form of balloons shaped like red hearts and silver stars.

As a light rain fell, family members of Sean Pearce, 29, who died nearly seven years ago as he rode his bicycle, stood in a semicircle in the village of Blacklick and watched the balloons float away.

The balloon release marked the end of a seven-year journey during which the family sought justice and changed state law.

Gregory Thomas Wisneski Jr., 27, was sentenced on Friday to one year less a day to two years less a day in the Indiana County Jail followed by three years' probation. Wisneski pleaded guilty in May for leaving the scene of a July 15, 2005, accident after his car struck Pearce as he rode a bicycle on Route 119 in Burrell Township.

“It's really nothing compared to the loss of my son, but it's what (the judge) could give,” Pearce's mother, Darla Hilliard, said outside the Indiana courthouse Friday.

Hilliard and her daughters, Shannon Anderson and Heather Kunkle, shared memories and heartaches in court during Wisneski's sentencing, noting his apparent lack of remorse. All three said they felt Judge William Martin heard their pleas for a harsh sentence.

“I was happy ... that it wasn't just us that felt that way,” Kunkle said. “I'm glad that the judge listened to our impact statements.”

During Wisneski's preliminary hearing in 2006, a state trooper testified that the defendant said he had trouble sleeping at first “but he was able to move on after time passed.”

“I told the court I have not slept a full night in the last seven years,” Hilliard said on Friday. “I truly, honestly want him to get his life straightened out.”

District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said he has watched the case move through the legal system and didn't want to let down his predecessor or Pearce's family.

The judge noted Wisneski's lack of remorse in sentencing him above the standard range for a hit-and-run charge, Dougherty said. The standard range, under state sentencing guidelines, is probation to one month in jail, he said.

Anderson said she was satisfied with the sentence. “I just wanted to see him taken away,” she said.

Wisneski , who had been free on bail since his arrest, was escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs.

Wisneski was charged 14 months after the July 2005 incident. The charges were dismissed in December 2007 by a former county judge and reinstated in 2011 by the state Supreme Court.

During that time, the family has worked with state Rep. David Reed, R-Indiana County, to enact “Sean's Law.” The group visited Harrisburg on July 5 when the governor signed the legislation into law.

Other than watching her 5-year-old daughter grow up, “that was the proudest moment of my life,” Anderson said through tears.

“Sean's Law” changed the minimum sentence for a hit-and-run that results in death from one to three years and closed a loophole that had resulted in less time for drivers who leave a scene, Kunkle said.

That “was another win for us,” she said. “This was meant to be; the law has changed.”

The balloon release has become an annual tradition on July 15. Friday's small ceremony at Hilliard's home could mark the beginning of a new chapter for the family.

“It's been a long journey,” Hilliard said to family members as they stood holding their balloons. “Sean, we love you. Your sisters have fought for a long time, which expresses their love for you. As of today, everything's going to be OK.”

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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