Trial began this week for a Bellingham driver who crashed into a group of Windward High School students, killing two Ferndale teens last spring.
A defense attorney for William Jeffrey Klein, 35, says his client fell asleep at the wheel around 1:30 p.m. June 10, 2015, as he drove a black Toyota 4Runner east on West Smith Road.
The crash killed Shane Lawrence Ormiston, 18, and Gabriel Lewis Anderson, 15. Two other boys suffered fractured femurs.
Klein was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault, as Prosecutor Dave McEachran alleged Klein’s actions amounted to “disregard for the safety of others.”
In his opening statement Wednesday morning, April 27, the prosecutor outlined how Klein’s vehicle crossed an 8-foot paved shoulder, lurched over a 6-inch curb, and came to a rest 200 feet to the east, with its passenger side tires on the sidewalk.
The defense attorney, Michael Brodsky, doesn’t dispute that Klein was behind the wheel, that he didn’t hit the brakes or swerve, and that the crash resulted in the tragic deaths of two boys.
But Brodsky argues that Klein had “no warning” that he would fall asleep.
The defense case centers on Klein’s obstructive sleep apnea, a “serious, serious illness” that sometimes caused him to wake up 30 times per hour and left him without a good night’s sleep, Brodsky said. Two doctors with expertise in sleep disorders are listed as potential defense witnesses.
Crash victims testify
On Wednesday witnesses for the prosecution were called: a teacher, the two injured boys and state troopers.
The day of the crash, it was beautiful outside.
“Sunny, I believe it was in the high 70s,” testified Evan Ritchie, the first witness called Wednesday. “Visibility was unlimited.”
So Ritchie, a teacher at Windward High, took his fifth period class on a spur-of-the-moment walk along West Smith. He split them into small groups, and gave them topics to discuss, to clear their minds on one of the last school days before summer vacation.
Some of the students, like Ormiston, were graduating seniors. Some talked about what they wanted to do with their lives. Ritchie stayed in the back of the group, watching for stragglers. He talked with Anderson, a recent transfer to the school.
Ritchie testified: “This was the first one-on-one conversation I’d ever had with Gabe Anderson.”
Then the teacher heard clinking metal, and the Toyota crashed into the boys. Bodies, shoes and clothes were scattered around the intersection of West Smith and Graveline, a quarter-mile east of campus. People sobbed in the courtroom gallery as Ritchie recounted the aftermath in detail.
The driver seemed to be in shock but coherent, Ritchie testified. Klein’s first words to him were: “I don’t know what happened. I fell asleep.”
Ritchie testified it was clear Ormiston and Anderson would not survive, and he felt there was nothing the driver could do to help, he recalled. So he told Klein to go back to the Toyota.
The two other boys, Michael Brewster and Kole Randall, testified about what they recalled. Randall suffered a broken femur, broken bones in his foot, a head injury and a concussion.
“I actually don’t remember,” Randall said on the stand, “but apparently I got hit by a car.”
His next memories were in intensive care, days later. Brewster’s memories were more clear, and aligned with what Ritchie said.
The defense had no questions for Brewster or Randall.
Drugs not involved
Almost 1 ½ hours after the crash, a Washington State Patrol drug recognition expert, Mike Rudy, went to talk to the driver. He found Klein curled up in the passenger seat of the ’85 Toyota, according to the prosecution.
Trooper Rudy reported he found Klein asleep, and that he needed to be shaken awake. On the witness stand, Rudy testified he knocked on the Toyota’s window but got no response. So he shook Klein, and he got up looking “groggy.” He testified he believed Klein was sleeping.
Brodsky argues Klein was distraught — not sleeping, but crying and holding his young son.
“When you opened up the door, did you hear any snoring?” Brodsky asked him in a brief cross examination.
Rudy answered, “No, I did not.”
Klein told the state patrol he consumed cannabis daily, but that he hadn’t smoked that day. That afternoon troopers publicly said they suspected Klein was impaired.
Toxicology tests came back months later: negative, for all drugs. The state crime lab found 8 nanograms of carboxy-THC per milliliter of Klein’s blood, but that “is not active THC that influences a person,” according to court records signed by the prosecutor.
Allegations of drugged driving were nixed in September, as McEachran specified in new court papers that Klein drove with disregard for the safety of others, even if the drug tests were negative.
Brodsky asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the entire case. He argued that falling asleep while driving, on its own, doesn’t fit the legal precedent for that charge.
McEachran countered that the evidence should be put in front of a jury. Judge Ira Uhrig allowed the case to proceed. He will be the presiding judge at trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.
In his opening statement McEachran mentioned that Klein had come down with the flu, and missed a few days of work, in early June. That morning was his second day back at Trader Joe’s, and the prosecution expects a coworker to testify that Klein seemed “sluggish,” and that he needed lots of coffee and breaks.
Brodsky, however, said Klein didn’t feel sleepy as he drove home in the afternoon.
“He’ll tell you what he told all the officers, all four of the officers he spoke to,” Brodsky said. “Nowhere along that route did he feel sleepy. Nowhere along that route did he feel like he was nodding off. Nowhere along that route did he feel like a danger to his son in the backseat.”