Crime

Driver gets 7 years for hit and run that left Bellingham mother with devastating head injury

A Bellingham man was sentenced to seven years in prison Thursday, April 23, for a hit and run that has left a mother of three unable to speak or walk.

Early Nov. 24, 2013, as the bars were letting out on a weekend in downtown Bellingham, Emma Lee Briceno crossed East Chestnut Street at Railroad Avenue. A black 2002 Lincoln sedan headed east, uphill, and swiped a Nissan Coupe in the intersection.

Then the Lincoln hit Briceno. She smashed into the windshield and fell to the asphalt. Briceno, 27, survived but suffered severe injuries to her skull, spine and brain. The driver continued on Chestnut, smacking the Lincoln into a Ford F-350 parallel-parked alongside the Herald Building. The car then drove off.

“He left my daughter to die in the street,” Briceno’s father, Brad Youngquist, said in court Thursday morning. “There is no forgiveness for such a selfish act.”

A helicopter airlifted Briceno to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She spent two months in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, and broken bones in her arm, leg and pelvis.

The Lincoln’s license plate detached in the crash. Police found it at the scene. The car belonged to the fiancée of felon Cory Ira Mezo, 31.

Around 5 that morning James Lorden called 911 saying he’d been a passenger in the front seat of the car. He said the driver’s name was Cory. Lorden told police he’d been bar-hopping downtown that night with a friend, Courtney Prosser, until 1:30 a.m. when Cory Mezo picked them up.

According to Lorden’s story, within seconds of picking up the passengers Mezo was “driving crazy.” He felt pretty sure the driver ran a red light on Chestnut at Railroad. Some witnesses said the driver was pulling a “donut” in the intersection as he hit the woman.

After the crash Mezo dropped off the passengers in a neighborhood, according to Lorden. The abandoned Lincoln was found around 9:30 a.m. in a parking lot at Western Washington University. Police caught up with Mezo at his father’s house in Ferndale. Officers noted a “moderate odor of intoxicants on his breath.” He was arrested and charged with vehicular assault, three counts of hit and run, and driving with a license revoked in the first degree.

Police tracked down about a hundred witnesses, among them Mezo’s father, a woman who picked up Mezo outside near a Happy Valley convenience store, barflies downtown, and the two men who were passengers in the Lincoln, both of whom were reluctant to talk with police, especially Prosser.

Some eyewitnesses — two of them, and a third who wavered — believed the driver was a black man, said Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey. At least two others thought he was white, and many said they couldn’t tell through the tinted windows.

Lorden and Prosser are black. Mezo is white, and there may have been a fourth person in the car, Richey said.

No one in the car had a clean record. At the time Prosser was awaiting trial on charges of vehicle theft, reckless endangerment, DUI, and two counts of theft for taking his estranged wife’s new Dodge Durango, with their child and her property inside, during an argument. He later pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor, theft in the third degree. All other charges were dropped.

Lorden spent time in prison for breaking into an apartment with a shotgun to steal cash and drugs in 2005. He’d also been accused of domestic violence assault for allegedly choking his girlfriend outside her Texas Street apartment.

Mezo, a father of two girls, had nine felonies on his record: two counts of theft in the first degree, two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of a stolen firearm, two counts of possession of a controlled substance, residential burglary and attempted auto theft.

Under state law seven years is the maximum term for vehicular assault, for someone with Mezo’s history. Had the case gone to trial, Mezo faced another charge of felony hit and run that could have put him in jail for up to 15 years — if the judge gave him the max.

“If we’d gone to trial, we would have to hope that a good number of citizens would have come across credibly, and stood up under cross examination, to secure a conviction,” Richey said. “Basically, we did not know how much more punishment we could get to justify the risk of a trial.”

Mezo took a 30-second pause to wipe at his eyes before he addressed the court Thursday.

“Your honor, I’d like to — I know that I deserve 84 months, and I hope that I can get that,” the defendant told the judge. He turned to Briceno and her family. “I just want the family to know it was a conscious mistake that I made, and even though the paper said that I was out doing donuts or whatever, that’s not what I was doing, I wasn’t out showing off. At the time of the accident, I didn’t know that I hit her, I found out later. It doesn’t make a difference, I understand that.”

Briceno waved her arms and pointed two bent fingers at Mezo as he spoke.

He ended his speech: “Again, I’m sorry, from the bottom of my heart.”

“You don’t have a heart,” Briceno’s grandmother, Elinor King, blurted out.

Briceno’s father recounted for the judge one day after the crash when his grandson, Nathaniel, had asked what was the matter with his mother.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Youngquist said. “How do you explain to a 6-year-old that someone was showing off, lost control of his car, hit his mom, and ran like a coward?”

Judge Charles Snyder handed down the seven-year sentence. Mezo, a meth user whom police suspect had been using drugs the night of the crash, will get substance abuse treatment in prison. Restitution remains to be determined.

Briceno, meanwhile, gets her own life sentence, according to her family. She needs nearly constant care and attention, and can no longer speak or walk. Her husband has divorced her because she is “broken,” her father said, and she has minimal visitation rights with her children, Nate, 8, and twins Riley and Ryder, 4.

Mezo “gets to go on with his life, get married, see and talk to his family, and look forward to someday living a full life,” her mother, Robin, said. “Something Emma may never do.”

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