Suspect who hit, killed beloved Comstock Township fire chief sentenced to prison

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. — When Holly Switalski approached the podium Monday morning at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse, she brought with her a few sheets of paper. She asked the judge if she could read a letter to Brandon Clevenger. The judge granted her request.

“Mr. Clevenger when I started thinking about what I was going to say today, I was surprised that my first thought was that you and I have something in common,” said Switalski clutching tissue in her right hand. “It was that June 14, 2017 was the worst day of our lives.”

That day is when her husband of 26 years died after Clevenger hit and killed him, she said. Chief Ed, as everyone called him, was tending to an accident on I-94 when Clevenger sped past the scene's flashing lights, hitting a response vehicle and Chief Ed.

“For me it’s the day I lost the love of my life, my best friend,” said Switalski while fighting back tears. “He was the man I was supposed to grow old with. Losing him was like losing a huge piece of myself.”

Switalski spoke for over five minutes during Clevenger’s sentencing. She told him how Chief Ed was a true fireman at heart and that he served fire departments in both suburban Chicago and Michigan for 37 years.

“From the age of 5, Ed wanted to be a fireman,” said his older sister Nora Switalski DePaola. “I mean if I had to find him during the day I knew where to go. I would walk past the playground, and if I didn’t see the little blonde head run around in the playground, then I knew he was at the firehouse.”

DePaola said she and Ed were close and that they spoke often, even when he moved to Comstock Township for the fire chief position. She said he moved to be closer to his two daughters who were studying at Western Michigan University. However, since June 14 she’s cried for him often.

“When I lay my head down on the pillow at night, I hear the fireman that I talked to that night,” DePaola said recalling the phone call when she learned her brother died. “On my end it was just screaming ‘No, no. no,’ ‘cause I couldn’t, I wouldn’t believe it.”

DePaola said she’ll never forget that night, she said. Emily Switalski agreed. She told Clevenger that her dad was an ‘outstanding’ father but that growing up she always feared for his safety because he was a fireman.

“And when he became chief a tiny bit of that worry left me because typically the chief is not put in the direct line of danger,” said Switalski. “Never in a millions years, when I was growing up, did I picture this is how I would lose my dad in the line of duty.”

Clevenger, 24, stood in the court room listening to their statements with his own family sitting nearby. When he was given the chance to respond, he apologized.

“I do take full responsibility for what I’ve done,” said Clevenger. “I hope that I can work towards gaining back any hard feelings that I’ve given Mr. Switalski’s family.”

Minutes later Judge Paul Bridenstine sentenced him to 3 1/2 to 15 years in prison. He went over the facts of the crash and said because he drove close to 90 m.p.h., the crash was no accident.

“While you may not have intended to cause Chief Switalski’s death, your intentional behavior and the manner you chose to operate your vehicle directly caused his death,” said Judge BridenstineThe behavior was anything but accidental.”

Clevenger was immediately handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom. Holly said she was relieved with the outcome and that she hopes others will learn from their pain.

“Well I really hope that every time somebody sees, whether it’s just a single squad car or a fire truck or an ambulance or a wrecker — anybody with lights on — you have to slow down,” Switalski said. “There’s no ands, ifs or buts about it.”

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