A drunk driver was sentenced to 16 years in prison Monday, Feb. 23, for a horrific crash that killed a man in downtown Bellingham.
The judge, the defendant, and the family of victim Dragan Skrobonja all shed tears in the packed courtroom Monday morning. Skrobonja was run over by a Ford F-350 pickup truck in the early morning hours of Memorial Day 2014, on the sidewalk of East Chestnut Street.
His sister and brother-in-law begged Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder, on behalf of the family, to give driver Dustin Frederick Brown, 28, the maximum sentence. In the end, the judge handed down the longest prison term for a vehicular homicide in Whatcom County history.
Brown had been drinking beer at the Up & Up on Sunday, May 25. He sent texts to friends around 10 p.m.: “So Im downtown and shouldnt drive” and “Im (expletive)-faced downtown, dont wanna drive home.” No one offered to pick him up.
Hours later, some late-night revelers at the bar saw Brown from afar, acting very drunk. They waved him over to see if they could get him to buy rounds of beer for the table. One witness, Jeremy Evans, watched Brown spill beer as he poured it into his glass. He watched Brown drink at least two more pints.
Brown got into a black Ford F-350, a truck he’d modified himself, sometime after 1 a.m. near the Old World Deli. It was Ski to Sea weekend, the area’s signature sporting event that attracts thousands to Bellingham each year. The bars were letting out. Around the block bar-goers, night owls and even a policeman heard Brown revving his engine: a loud rise and fall. Charcoal-colored smoke kicked up. The truck peeled out. It fishtailed on the wet road, caught some traction and swerved onto the sidewalk by the parking lot for Color Pot, a home improvement store off North State Street. The truck struck and injured three young men: Brian Corey, Brynden Gorman and John Weitzel. All three needed treatment at St. Joseph hospital.
Brown’s truck then lurched over a short barrier at the end of the parking lot. There, at the corner of State and Chestnut, the pickup hit Skrobonja, 37. He was dragged into the street. He died at the scene from massive injuries. Brown did not stop. He crashed into a Toyota 4Runner filled with tired Ski to Sea racers on their way to a motel. (None were hurt.) Brown reversed and, per several witness accounts, nearly ran over Skrobonja again.
Brown tried to drive off, crashing into more parked cars while en route back to State Street. A witness, Tyler Dixon, jumped onto the step bar of the truck and punched Brown through the open window until Brown passed out.
At the hospital Brown told a detective he’d had one beer. He even claimed to recall the brewery: Ninkasi, and it was Dawn of the Red. In the same conversation he contradicted himself, saying he’d had “a few drinks.” The detective, Pauline Renick, told him he smelled like alcohol. A blood sample taken an hour after the crash showed Brown’s blood-alcohol content was 0.23, almost three times the legal limit.
“That’s not a little buzz. That’s completely intoxicated,” Skrobonja’s brother-in-law, Jordan Klein, told the judge Monday. “That’s not a glass of wine with dinner. That’s out at the bar all night long from around 7 o’clock to 1:30 a.m. getting wasted.”
Brown claimed the carnage was caused by a mechanical problem in his truck; it “just went haywire,” he’d told the detective. Mechanics later found nothing wrong with the truck’s accelerator.
Family and friends in the audience Monday wept as Klein, an attorney by trade, recounted the facts for the judge. Brown, he said, did not do a single redeeming act that night.
“Frankly,” Jordan Klein said, “I can’t think of a worse set of facts in a vehicular homicide. The B.A.C.; the text messages showing he understood his drunken, dangerous condition; the 700-horsepower modified truck he drove; hitting four pedestrians, killing one; trying to flee; going in reverse and back in drive twice; then lying to try and protect himself. What more could he have done wrong?”
Skrobonja’s sister Snezana Klein, also an attorney, fought through tears to explain how devastating the loss has been to the family. Dragan, Snezana and their parents fled to the United States during the Bosnian War. The parents left behind their jobs — history professor, accountant — to work as custodians at a McDonald’s restaurant.
“My parents left everything,” Snezana said. “They left it all to give Dragan and I (a) future. Coming to the United States was gift to Dragan and I. They came, we came, for a better life, and most importantly for a safer life.”
The family has lived in Bellingham for about two decades.
“All of those sacrifices they made were stolen in an instant,” Snezana said, “when the defendant took my brother, when my brother was standing on the sidewalk in downtown Bellingham, Your Honor. It just feels so wrong, for Dragan to survive an ethnic war, and come to United States to be killed by a drunk driver in downtown Bellingham. This is not why we came to this country, we came together, here — not to lose my brother like this.”
On Monday Brown’s sisters, his former boss and an old roommate spoke in support of Brown. Each opened by apologizing to the Skrobonja family. His sister, Danielle, said Brown has a “heart of gold.” Brown started to cry.
“This tragic, tragic accident, and his decision to drink and drive, came as a huge surprise to all of us,” Danielle Brown said through tears. “That is not the Dusty I know.”
Dustin Brown held a two-sided handwritten apology letter as he addressed the court.
“I just want everyone to know that I do accept full responsibility for everything that I did,” he began. “It’s because of my irresponsible actions that night that an innocent life was lost, and others were injured, and property was damaged.”
He had no control of himself, he said, “because of how much I drank.” He said he wants to be an example of how dangerous alcohol can be, and to advocate against drunken driving.
Brown pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault. Four felony hit and run charges were dropped in a plea deal. Deputy Prosecutor Jim Hulbert and Public Defender Darrin Hall recommended a sentence of 13 years and four months.
Snyder, moved to tears by the family’s statements, ordered the maximum sentence of 16 years and two months. For Whatcom County it’s the longest prison term in a vehicular homicide case by far — seven years longer than the old record — in large part due to stronger DUI laws passed by state legislators in 2012.
A hearing date still has not been set to decide if the Up & Up knowingly over-served Brown that night, said Mikhail Carpenter, a state Liquor Control Board spokesman. Sometimes, he added, that’s because the board waits for the criminal case to be resolved before having a hearing.
Around the corner from the bar, at Chestnut and State streets, there’s still a memorial: bright potted flowers and portraits of Skrobonja. His mother, Elza, goes by each day to keep it fresh, her daughter told the judge. Some days, Snezana said, Elza has noticed some of the flowers have been stolen.
“She just shrugs and says, ‘It doesn’t matter. My life was stolen.’”
Dustin Brown’s full, transcribed statement to the court
“I just want everyone to know that I do accept full responsibility for everything that I did, and it’s because of my irresponsible actions that night that an innocent life was lost, and others were injured, and property was damaged.
“To the families and friends of Dragan, I am deeply, deeply sorry. There really aren’t words to describe that sorry (feeling) and the guilt, other than that it’s something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. There isn’t a night that goes by that I don’t think about what happened.
“Also, I hope you understand it wasn’t malicious. I wasn’t aware, I had no control over myself because of how much I drank, and there was just a period of time there where I lost control of everything. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing.
“And I wish more than anything I could turn back the hands of time and change what happened. Unfortunately I can’t. We’re all stuck in this, and for that I’m sorry.
I also want to apologize to everyone I hurt, not just physically but mentally, from this. Moving forward I hope I can be an example to everyone of the dangers of alcohol, to anyone who knew Dragan, to anyone who knows me, to anyone who knows of this case through the media. I want to be an advocate for the dangers of getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. It’s — it’s something that will haunt me forever, and obviously haunt the family and victims. I’m truly sorry from the bottom of my heart.”