Driver testifies about crash that killed Ferndale boys

Bellingham driver who killed 2 takes the stand

William Jeffrey Klein, who hit 4 Ferndale students with his car, killing 2, in May 2015 takes the stand in Whatcom Superior Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
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William Jeffrey Klein, who hit 4 Ferndale students with his car, killing 2, in May 2015 takes the stand in Whatcom Superior Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.

A Bellingham driver testified for more than an hour Tuesday, May 3, about the day he crashed into a group of students on a sidewalk near Windward High School.

Two boys were killed when William Jeffrey Klein, 35, fell asleep at the wheel and crashed onto the sidewalk in June 2015 on West Smith Road. Two other boys survived serious injuries.

Prosecutors charged Klein with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for driving with disregard for the safety of others.

On the witness stand Tuesday he spoke in a calm voice, at times needing a deep breath, as he retraced his steps on the afternoon of the crash and the days leading up to it.

Illness and work

“The week before, Jasper (his son, age 3) had come down the flu, passed on through his school,” Klein began.

Klein caught the flu, too — and it was bad enough that he missed work at Trader Joe’s for almost a week with a fever of 103 degrees. He felt ready to return on Monday, he testified, but he took an extra day off to get healthier.

He worked Tuesday, June 9. That night he went to bed around 10:30 p.m., and he set an alarm set for 2:45 a.m. That was typical for him, he told a detective in a recorded interview.

At Trader Joe’s he helped unload dairy into a walk-in refrigerator. Most days of the week his shift started at 4 a.m. On his second day back, a Wednesday morning, he worked closest with Spencer Theriault, who testified at trial that Klein seemed more tired than usual.

“Perhaps I worked a little bit slower, maybe exercising a slight amount of caution,” Klein said on the stand. “But it was a normal day.”

Two supervisors and a close friend testified that Klein seemed OK. He had color in his face. It looked like he had recovered, as far as they could tell.

After leaving work around noon he took a catnap, he testified, in his Toyota 4Runner. He said he took naps after work about three times a week. He would set an alarm and sit upright — and for someone with obstructive sleep apnea, like Klein, that might be the only good 15 minutes of sleep he’d get all day, according to defense expert witness testimony.

When he woke up from his nap on June 10, he felt “refreshed,” he said. “I felt ready to continue with my day.”

Klein picked up his son from a Montessori school in Ferndale. The teacher, Bree McWilliams, didn’t notice anything odd about him.

The prosecutor, Dave McEachran, noted it was a very brief hand-off. They hardly interacted.

“That’s correct,” McWilliams said.

About a quarter-hour later, Klein drove east over Interstate 5 on West Smith Road. The next thing he knew, he said, he woke up seven-tenths of a mile down the road, with his Toyota’s passenger side tires up on the sidewalk of Smith.

On the west side of Graveline Road, the Toyota 4Runner had crossed a wide paved shoulder, lurched over a 6-inch curb and almost immediately struck a group of high school students on the sidewalk. About 190 feet down the road, the Toyota came to a stop. According to expert testimony, there were no skid marks until the last 33 feet, east of Graveline.

The crash

“I know this is hard, but can you describe that moment?” asked the defense attorney, Michael Brodsky.

Klein took a moment to collect himself.

“It was unlike anything I’ve experienced,” he said. “Just — like waking up from a dream, or something, it was — I just woke up, and Jasper was crying. And I had a horrible feeling in my head, like I’ve never had before.”

“When did you start to realize what had happened?” Brodsky said.

“As soon as I got my bearings, and jumped out of the car to see — ” Klein’s voice trailed off.

“And what did you see?”

“I saw Mr. Ritchie tending to a child,” Klein said.

Evan Ritchie was the boys’ teacher. He’d taken his fifth period class on an impromptu walk on a sunny afternoon, on the last week of school before summer vacation.

Two boys in the class, Shane Ormiston, 18, and Gabriel Anderson, 15, died at the scene. Two other boys were struck and suffered broken femurs.

“What did you feel at that point?” Brodsky asked.

“Terror. Shock. Prayer,” Klein said.

I can’t say there’s any one thing I could point to that I could have changed.

Driver William Jeffrey Klein, answering if he should have done anything differently the day of the fatal crash

Brodsky questioned Klein about his driving history. He’d never fallen asleep at the wheel, he said. He’d gone on long road trips around the country with his wife, Sarah, where he served as the primary driver.

Brodsky asked Klein about any medical concerns before the crash. His wife knew he snored, and he’d often get poked awake. But no one ever suggested to him, he said, that he should see a doctor about a sleep disorder.

Last, the defense attorney circled back and asked about the crash.

“I’m sure you’ve run that day over in your head many times, haven’t you?” Brodsky asked.

“Many times,” Klein said.

“When you run it back, do you think of anything you should have done differently?”

“No,” Klein said, “I can’t say there’s any one thing I could point to that I could have changed.”

“Is there some sign you think you missed?” Brodsky asked.


Prosecutor questions driver

On cross-examination McEachran, the county’s top prosecutor, further pressed Klein about how he felt on June 10.

“You said you took enough time to recover from the flu,” McEachran said. “You were wrong about that, weren’t you?”

“I don’t believe so,” Klein said.

McEachran reminded him that one of his coworkers said he looked “run down” that morning.

“At that point,” McEachran said, “couldn’t you have decided to not drive your vehicle, when you felt the way you did, and were performing the way you were performing?”

“I don’t believe so, no,” Klein said. “Like I said, I believed I was performing at about 90 percent of capacity, which was not alarming to me.”

The prosecutor asked Klein if he felt like he couldn’t drive that day.

“No, not at all,” Klein said.

“You indicated,” McEachran said, “that you couldn’t see one thing you should’ve done differently.”

“Unless the whole day had changed for some other reason,” Klein said. “There are some certain things that could’ve changed to make it not happen.”

McEachran asked if he would change the fact that he drove.

Klein said: “I believe that would have changed the course of many lives.”

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb