Wrong-way driver Benjamin George Dods jailed for Tauranga chef’s manslaughter

The actions of a boozed, drug-using, speeding, wrong-way driver who crashed and killed a chef heading home after work were “incredibly foolish and selfish”, a judge says.

Justice Simon Moore, QC, said Benjamin George Dods had “torn apart” the lives of the family and friends of Uthai Phonphong, 38, who died at the scene of the January 17 crash on the Tauranga Eastern Link.

Dods, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer from Kinleith, was sentenced in the Rotorua High Court today for the manslaughter of Phonphong, as well as two drugs charges. He previously pleaded guilty to the charges.

The court heard that on the day of the crash, Dods had been drinking steadily and turned down an offer from friends to sleep on the couch.

He later took meth at a friend’s apartment and was asked to leave. Dods took a big swig of rum as he left for his girlfriend’s place in Pāpāmoa in his unwarranted Toyota Surf 4WD ute.

Security camera footage in Mount Maunganui captured him speeding, overtaking without indicating, driving around a service station forecourt and running over a raised traffic island as he drove towards Pāpāmoa then on to the Tauranga Eastern Link.

On the highway, he entered the Bruce Rd off-ramp then re-entered the highway heading in the wrong direction towards Mount Maunganui.

Phonphong was heading home to his wife and two daughters in Pāpāmoa from his job at a local restaurant.

About 10.53pm, Dods’ vehicle smashed head-on into the chef’s Toyota Camry.

Police said the impact was “massive”.

It was estimated Dods was driving at between 112km/h and 117 km/h but braked before impact to a speed of between 105km/h and 110km/h.

The victim, estimated to be travelling at about 116km/h, was not able to avoid the crash.

Phonphong died at the scene from injuries including extensive fractures. The cause of death was a “completely” ruptured thoracic aorta.

Not wearing a seatbelt, Dods suffered two broken ankles, scalp and face lacerations, and a nasal bone fracture. He was discharged from Tauranga Hospital on January 26.

Inside his vehicle were five snaplock bags containing P residue.

Charges of conspiring to deal Class A drug DMT and Class B drug MDMA were laid after the police examined texts between Dods and an associate and also searched his vehicle.

Justice Moore read the summary of facts to the court as Dods appeared before him via an audiovisual link from prison.

Dods had not slept or rested for about 30 hours before the crash, the court heard.

He was twice the drink-driving limit and also had P and other drugs, including the antidepressants Amitriptyline and Nortriptyline in his system.

Dods told the police he had no memory of the crash and could not explain why methamphetamine was found in his blood.

Crown prosecutor Ben Smith said a number of Phonphong’s family members, including his widow and daughters, were seated in the public gallery.

Many others, including family friends, were waiting outside the court, he said.

Smith said nine victim impact statements, including from the deceased’s devastated parents and siblings, made for “difficult reading” and went to the heart of the tragedy.

Dods’ letter of remorse had been passed to the officer-in-charge, he said.

Smith said the Crown sought a sentence starting point of six-and-half to seven years prison before any discounts were allowed for mitigating factors, remorse and guilty pleas.

Dods’ lawyer Thomas Haare said that was too high when compared to other similar manslaughter cases.

He said the devastating impact of this offending weighed “very heavily” on Dods and he would have to live with what he had done for the rest of his life.

Haare said Dods offered to engage in a restorative justice process with Phonphong’s family and hoped they would be able to forgive him in time.

Dods was willing to pay the $10,167.79 reparation sought by Phonphong’s insurance company, however, he was not able to commit to that obligation now, he said.

Justice Moore said he accepted Dods was genuinely remorseful but noted he had tried to minimise some of his offending to the pre-sentence reporter writer.

He said the victim impact statements were “harrowing reading” and described Dods’ offending as “appalling and catastrophic” for Phonphong’s family and friends.

Dods’ “incredibly foolish and selfish” actions had “torn apart their lives”, Moore said.

“This was no accident,” he said.

It was a “prolonged, persistent, and very serious” episode of dangerous driving and the crash was inevitable.

Moore sentenced Dods to four years and eight months’ prison after taking into account his guilty pleas, remorse and offer to engage in a restorative justice process.

He urged Dods to take full advantage of any other rehabilitative programmes he was offered while in prison and continue to think about what he had done.

“It’s my sincere hope that you can come out the other end of this process and emerge a better person who can make a real contribution for the betterment of the community.”

Dods was also disqualified from holding or obtaining a driver licence for three years from the day he is released from prison.

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