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Aide sentenced in NY autistic man's Pa. van death

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MARYCLAIRE DALE | March 8, 2011 12:23 AM EST | AP

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PHILADELPHIA — An aide who spent hours on her cellphone the day she left a severely autistic client to die in a hot van was sent to prison Monday for two to five years.

Stacey Strauss, 41, pleaded no contest Monday to involuntary manslaughter in the death last summer of 20-year-old Bryan Nevins, of Oceanside, N.Y.

Strauss, of Philadelphia, had been busy talking and texting with her boyfriend and left Nevins in a locked van after an outing on the 97-degree day, prosecutors say. She spent about three hours of her eight-hour shift on the phone, despite her employer's ban on personal cell phone use and an order to maintain arm's-reach contact with her two charges that day, prosecutors say.

"You're entrusted with the life of someone else's child. You have to take that seriously, and clearly she wasn't," Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler told The Associated Press. "You have to have the patience of a saint to do these jobs, but she took it on."

Strauss had been on the job for nine years, earning about $11.50 an hour, but had been disciplined several times for her cell phone use.

Her lawyer acknowledged that the phone calls affected her job performance, but blamed the July 24 death on a "system-wide failure" at Woods Services, the residential facility in Langhorne where Nevins and a triplet brother had lived for five years.

Supervisors failed to clearly detail the transportation plan, including responsibility for picking up and dropping off clients, or to make rounds to see everyone made it back, defense lawyer Robert Lynch said.

"Obviously the blame starts with Stacey, but it shouldn't end there," Lynch said.

He hoped Strauss would be sentenced to less than a year.

Strauss and a second counselor had been assigned to take four clients to Sesame Place, a nearby water park, on a day the temperature would reach 97 degrees. The group returned early after Nevins acted up, trying to bite and scratch himself and others.

Strauss was driving the van, and claimed she was only in charge of one of the four clients, not Nevins. She dropped the other counselor off with two clients, and returned with a third client to a residence building. Nevins, who was also profoundly mentally retarded, could not free himself from the back row of the locked van. He spent five hours in the broiling van before his body was found.

Nevins' father, William, is a retired New York City detective. He and his wife have to explain his death anew each day to their other autistic son, according to their victim-impact testimony Monday.

"He asks for (Bryan) every day. Every day it's like peeling off a new scab of broken-heartedness for these folks," Assistant District Attorney Robert James said.

Strauss, who also pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and no contest to neglect of a care-dependent person, was sent to prison straight from the hearing. She will be in prison or on parole or probation for the next 10 years. She was originally charged with felony neglect, but negotiated a plea to three misdemeanors.