Hit, run driver gets probation

The woman accused in the hit-and-run death of a Lenoir man was sentenced to probation Tuesday after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor charges.

Tiffany Jade Vassello, 23, received five years supervised probation for consolidated charges of misdemeanor hit and run and misdemeanor careless and reckless driving. She was also charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

The charges are Class 1 misdemeanors. If Vassello doesn't violate her probation, she won't receive jail time.

Vassello's charges are related to the July 2009 death of 27-year-old Reynard Funez, who was walking along the onramp from U.S. 321 to N.C. 127 when he was struck and killed by Vassello's Nissan Xterra.

Vassello left the scene of the crime and was identified as the vehicle's driver more than a week after the incident. A witness who was with Vassello the night of the crash said she was drinking when she got behind the wheel, according to assistant district attorney Sean McGinnis. Vassello submitted to a toxicology test when she was taken into custody, but that report didn't indicate signs of alcohol.

"Young lady, I don't know if you were drinking or not," said Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, adding that he hopes the incident will serve as a wake-up call for Vassello and other people who might get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.

Cell phone records obtained by the District Attorney's Office revealed Vassello sent a text message after the incident asking a friend if she hit anything with her car that night because the vehicle was driving "funny."

Boner required Vassello to perform 100 hours of community service within the first six months of her probation. She isn't allowed to consume or possess alcohol or controlled substances for the duration of her probation.

Vassello was also ordered to pay court costs and restitution in the amount of $5,478 for Funez's funeral bill. Alba Luz Dubon, who was Funez's partner, paid for the funeral. Dubon was in the courtroom Tuesday to hear Vassello's sentencing, but Dubon declined to speak in court about the incident.

Vassello said only "yes, sir" and "no, sir" as Boner outlined the terms of her plea arrangement. She dabbed at her eyes with a facial tissue and didn't address the court.

Should Vassello violate her probation terms, she could serve two consecutive 45-day prison sentences.

Vassello's attorney, Jason White, assured the court that wouldn't happen.

"You'll never see Ms. Vassello within the confines of this courtroom again," White said.

White told the court that Vassello has no prior criminal convictions and is "deeply remorseful" for Funez's death. White said she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is currently enrolled in graduate studies.

An autopsy revealed Funez died from multiple blunt force injuries to his head, chest, back and abdomen. Blood taken from Vassello's vehicle matched Funez's DNA.