Image: Robert Spencer
Jennifer Tarter  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
Truck driver Robert Spencer crashed into a school van in April 2006, killing five people, including a girl whose parents spent weeks at the bedside of another victim, thinking that patient was their daughter.
updated 8/14/2007 4:47:32 PM ET 2007-08-14T20:47:32

A truck driver was sentenced to four years in prison Tuesday for causing a crash that killed five people and sparked a highly publicized case of mistaken identity.

Robert F. Spencer, 38, could have faced up to 24 years in prison. On May 29, he pleaded guilty to five counts of reckless homicide and four counts of criminal recklessness.

“I know I’ll have to deal with this the rest of my life,” Spencer said.

Spencer’s semitrailer collided with a Taylor University van on April 26, 2006, as students and staff returned to the Upland campus. Authorities said Spencer had fallen asleep at the wheel after failing to take required rest breaks.

Four students and a school employee were killed; five other people were injured. Five weeks after the crash, the family of student Laura VanRyn realized that she was dead and the injured woman they thought was their daughter actually was Whitney Cerak, another Taylor student.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Jay Circuit Judge Brian Hutchison sentenced Spencer to eight years but suspended four years, which would be served on probation. With more than a year already served, plus time off for good behavior, he could be eligible for release in about a year, the prosecutor said.

He also must pay a $5,000 fine and spend 500 hours doing community service. He also will permanently lose his commercial driver’s license.

Authorities say he had driven at least nine hours more than allowed under federal rules before he fell asleep behind the wheel.

Besides VanRyn, those killed in the crash were students Bradley J. Larson, 22; Elizabeth A. Smith, 22; and Laurel E. Erb, 20; and university employee Monica Felver, 53.

Their families were told Cerak — who closely resembled VanRyn — was dead and VanRyn was seriously injured and in a coma. VanRyn’s family spent weeks at the woman’s bedside, not realizing the error until after Cerak regained consciousness.

Cerak, of Gaylord, Mich., has since recovered and returned to classes.

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