Whatcom County man sentenced to 18 years in stabbing death

William Ralph Smith at his first appearance in Whatcom Superior Court, Friday, March 23, 2015, at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham.
William Ralph Smith at his first appearance in Whatcom Superior Court, Friday, March 23, 2015, at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

A man convicted of stabbing another man to death during a fight will spend more than 18 years in prison, a judge ruled Monday, Aug. 10.

William Ralph Smith, 45, stabbed Jeremy McClellan, 25, multiple times with a knife around 6:30 a.m. March 22, 2015, according to charges filed in Whatcom County Superior Court. McClellan sustained 10 stab wounds, including the fatal wound to his neck, and died in a pool of his own blood minutes later.

“This is a case that began, and came all the way through trial, with a certain level of uncertainty and confusion,” said Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder during the sentencing hearing.

Smith was living in a trailer at 319 Pacific Highway in south Whatcom County. McClellan, of Skagit County, had been hanging out with Smith and a small group of people the night before he died on the same property.

The circumstances that led to the fatal altercation, however, remain somewhat unclear. Several witnesses who testified in court admitted most of the people there that night, which included Smith, McClellan, McClellan’s sister and a few others, were high on methamphetamine hours before McClellan’s death.

Smith has said McClellan approached him with an ax looking for a fight. That story was supported by Smith’s girlfriend, Chena Fisher, twice — when she called 911 to report the incident, and during trial. Yet she also told a deputy two days after McClellan’s death that she never saw him with an ax, and suggested Smith staged the scene by breaking a beer bottle and telling officers that McClellan had fallen on it multiple times.

Prosecutors pointed out during the trial that a trail of blood leading from the fight down to the trailer where McClellan died proved that Smith chased him and repeatedly stabbed him. McClellan had 10 stab wounds, and a knife with McClellan’s blood on it was found in Smith’s trailer. Those facts should have proven that Smith intended to murder McClellan, Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey has said.

Prosecutors charged Smith with second-degree murder while armed with a deadly weapon. In June, a jury found Smith guilty of first-degree manslaughter, deciding there was not enough evidence to prove Smith intended to kill McClellan, but rejecting the notion that Smith had been acting in self defense.

Snyder sentenced Smith to 18 years and two months in prison Monday — the top of the sentencing range given Smith’s criminal history — and three years probation.

Smith apologized to members of McClellan’s family who attended the sentencing, including Denise Hambleton, McClellan’s mother.

“I’m so sorry. I have a mom, too, and I’m so sorry... I feel for how my mom would feel,” Smith said through tears, turning toward McClellan’s mother in the courtroom. “He was in the wrong place, I was in the wrong place, we were high on drugs ... it’s tragic.”

However, Smith maintained he was only standing his ground, and said if McClellan hadn’t died that day then it could have been him who died instead.

Richey rejected that idea after Smith spoke.

“There was no real evidence that trouble came to the defendant ... I think it’s pretty clear that (Smith) is trying to manipulate things again,” Richey said, likely referring to Smith allegedly breaking the beer bottle to make it look like McClellan fell on top of it.

Richey also called Smith a “career criminal,” something Smith seemed to take offense to.

Smith admitted he had a criminal history, but said it was due to a drug problem. He spent nearly three years in prison in the early 1990s for trafficking and possessing drugs in Nevada, according to an investigation completed by the Department of Corrections. He had several more drug convictions on his record from California, and in 2013 he was found guilty of conspiracy to deliver marijuana and conspiracy to sell methamphetamine — both felonies.

He told a Department of Corrections investigator that he started using drugs at the age of 12 or 13. He also said he was a “skinhead” gang member, and that the gang allowed him to retire a few years ago because of “quality service,” according to court documents.

McClellan, too, had a felony history in Skagit County related to possession of controlled substances. Hambleton, while addressing the court Monday, said her son lived a troubled life, but said Smith took away his chance at a promising future.

“Each morning when I awake, the emptiness greets me, reminding me I won’t see or hear from Jeremy,” she said.

She said she can’t eat because food is a luxury her son can no longer enjoy, and music is just a reminder of there being too little time spent with her son.

“I don’t want to go on without my son,” she said. “I have no choice.”

Snyder, speaking before delivering the sentence, said Smith was “seriously reckless and dangerous,” the day he killed McClellan.

“There is no case where someone dies at the hand of another person that allows the survivors to understand, make sense of, or accept the outcome,” Snyder said. “Nothing here can change what happened, nothing here can make anybody whole.”

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