Aspen woman avoids jail time in careless driving plea deal after killing 5-year-old
Longtime Aspen real estate agent must come up with plan to honor girl she struck in March 2020
A longtime local real estate agent pleaded guilty Tuesday to striking and killing a 5-year-old girl with her SUV in downtown Aspen more than a year ago.
And while Heidi Houston will avoid jail time as part of a plea deal, part of her sentence was to come up with a plan that honors Hannah Heusgen’s love of ballet and horses, and improves the safety of the intersection where the accident occurred in March 2020.
“I never saw this little girl,” a tearful Houston said during a virtual Pitkin County Court hearing Tuesday afternoon. “I’m so sorry for the family and I’m so sorry for this little girl. I can’t imagine the heartbreak this has caused this family.”
Houston pleaded guilty to one count of careless driving resulting in death and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation and 160 hours of community service.
Heusgen — daughter of the German ambassador to the United Nations — was diagonally crossing Galena Street with her mother, father and siblings from the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall to the northeast corner of the intersection where the Ute Mountaineer outdoor store is located when the girl was struck. Houston, who was driving a 2018 GMC Acadia, was not on her phone or intoxicated at the time, according to the police.
Prosecutor Luisa Berne said Tuesday the word “accident” in connection with the tragedy is a misnomer.
“’Accident’ implies this was unavoidable,” she said. “This was avoidable. Had she (Houston) looked in front of her, this would have been avoided.”
Abe Hutt, Houston’s attorney, said that was not true. Houston stopped at the intersection though she didn’t have a stop sign, remembers seeing Heusgen’s father carrying two brightly colored sleds and looked to her left and right but somehow missed the 5-year-old directly in front of her car.
“Heidi absolutely never saw that little girl,” Hutt said. “It just doesn’t get any worse than this. But let’s be clear, this was an accident.”
Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely said the entire town of Aspen felt the trauma of Hannah Heusgen’s death, and that she believed Houston was remorseful. The judge said it was important that Houston’s sentence honor Hannah and, perhaps, contribute to making Aspen safer.
Ina and Christoph Heusgen, Hannah’s parents, did not attend Tuesday’s hearing and have maintained their distance from Aspen and the court case since the accident.
“This is every parent’s worst fear, and Ina and Christoph have lived it,” Berne said. “They will forever have a piece missing of themselves. They will never get to see her as an adult or a teenager.”
Hannah Heusgen loved ballet and unicorns and to dance and sing, Berne said. Her favorite color was pink.
Houston, who is also a parent, wrote a statement expressing her sorrow and remorse to the Heusgen family the day after the accident, Hutt said. Berne and the District Attorney’s Office, however, told them the family did not want to hear from Houston and the letter was never sent, Hutt said.
Houston is seeing a therapist to deal with the “horror, guilt and shame” she feels because of Hannah’s death, Hutt said.
“Being responsible for the death of someone else’s child will never change,” he said.
Hutt said Houston is willing to do anything in her power to relieve some of the pain she’s caused.
“I wake up every day and I say a prayer for this child and this family,” Houston said. “It was a tragic accident and it will be with me the rest of my life.”
Berne said Tuesday it is still “too hard” for the Heusgen family to hear from Houston.
Part of Houston’s 160 hours of community service plan, which will be reviewed by Fernandez-Ely in a month, could include setting up a scholarship program in Hannah Heusgen’s name to allow girls in the Roaring Fork Valley to attend ballet classes or a possible safety improvement downtown named for her.