For two years, Gregory Hoctor's parents were left searching for answers about the accident that killed their son.
Kevin McCartney knew the whole time.
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On Wednesday, McCartney was called "coward" by the judge who sentenced him to nine years in prison for leaving his friend to die in an October 2009 crash.
"Somehow, the defendant lived his life as if nothing happened," DuPage County Judge Blanche Hill Fawell said.
McCartney was 19 when his speeding Volkswagen GTI slammed into a tree along Dufree Road in Wheaton while driving Hoctor home from a party where they both had been drinking.
Afterward, McCartney moved his badly injured passenger to make it look as if Hoctor had been behind the wheel. Then he went back to the party, telling friends Hoctor had attacked him and stolen the car.
Using an inconvenient route that avoided the crash scene, McCartney took a police officer to Hoctor's Wheaton home more than an hour later, after a partygoer called 911, according to testimony.
Hoctor, 18, was unconscious but still breathing when officers finally found him on their own about 5 a.m., roughly two hours after the crash. He was pronounced dead later that day.
Wheaton police were skeptical of McCartney's story early on. But Detective Edward Fanning said it took two years of forensic testing to prove "it was impossible for Mr. Hoctor to be driving."
He said the investigation involved analyzing fibers embedded in the car and biomechanical testing of both front seats.
During the investigation, McCartney attended College of DuPage, where he was charged with possessing a marijuana pipe, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he was cited for having an open alcohol container, Assistant State's Attorney Mike Fisher said.
Meanwhile, Hoctor's relatives were devastated and struggling for answers. They said the teen, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage, had taken steps to join the Marines just days before the crash and had a bright future.
"After three years, I still can't understand why Kevin left Gregory, his friend," Hoctor's mother, Darlene, said in a victim statement.
She said she often wonders, "Would Gregory be alive if he had gotten help sooner?"
McCartney, formerly of Wheaton, was formally charged in December 2011. In April, he pleaded guilty to failure to report an accident involving death. In exchange for his admission of guilt, prosecutors agreed to cap their sentencing recommendation at 10 years when McCartney otherwise would have faced up to 15.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Brian Telander presented 20 letters of character references for McCartney and called eight witnesses who described the defendant as shy, smart and hard working.
In his own statement, McCartney, now 23, told the judge he "panicked" and "made a stupid decision" in leaving Hoctor behind.
"If I could, I would take his place," he said, apologizing to Hoctor's parents and sister as they sat in the courtroom.
The judge said she found it "ironic" that on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, when Americans reflect on helping each other heroically in times of tragedy, she found herself sentencing a man who did the opposite.
"This defendant's a coward," Fawell said.
By law, McCartney must serve at least 4½ years, with credit for 21 months in the county jail since his arrest.
Hoctor's family declined to comment on the sentence outside of court.