Crime

‘Miracle’ crash survivor recalls pain as Bellingham driver gets prison

Bellingham man sentenced for causing high-speed car crash

John Owens appears in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Owens was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for vehicular assault for causing a January crash that left a woman critically injured.
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John Owens appears in Whatcom Superior Court in Bellingham, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Owens was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for vehicular assault for causing a January crash that left a woman critically injured.

Sometime after the crash Katherine Robins woke up in the hospital confused, on heavy painkillers, with 15 broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a breathing tube shoved down her throat.

She could not speak. So she wrote on a sheet of paper.

“Am I going to die?”

Even the doctors, she recalls, thought the answer was yes.

A judge heard an agonizing two-page written statement from Robins in court Wednesday morning, June 15, before a driver was sentenced to two years in prison for causing the high-speed T-bone crash in Bellingham.

Robins, 20, needed to be brought back to life twice, her parents wrote to the judge. Doctors removed her spleen. They found bleeding in her brain. Her liver, pancreas and colon were severed. Months later, she wrote, a broken arm still hasn’t healed properly, and as a worship band leader she worries how badly her vocal cords were damaged.

Yet she’s alive.

“I would like to make one thing perfectly clear: I would be dead if it wasn’t for God saving me,” Robins wrote.

At the hospital her parents had to remind her many times of what happened on the night of Jan. 10. She kept forgetting.

The crash

That evening Robins, a professional photographer from Lynden, had flown back from visiting family in California. She was on her way home from the Bellingham airport in a gray 1990 Volvo station wagon. She sat in the passenger seat as her boyfriend, 21, drove east on Bakerview Road.

Half an inch one way or the other, and this would have been a vehicular homicide case.

Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Quinn

Around 10 o’clock a northbound ’06 Hyundai Azera ran a red light and slammed into the car at a high speed on Northwest Avenue, missing the front seats by inches. On impact, the Volvo was ripped in half. A wheel shot through the window of Heritage Bank. A car door landed on the bank’s roof.

“Half an inch one way or the other, and this would have been a vehicular homicide case,” said Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Quinn.

Seconds later officers reached the scene to find Robins unconscious in a “portion” of the Volvo. Robins’ fiancé Dakota Buttrey suffered no serious injuries. At the scene, he held Robins’ head until an ambulance arrived. He called her name but got no response.

State troopers had been searching for the gray Hyundai moments earlier. People reported the car speeding over 100 mph on Interstate 5 with the headlights off.

The driver, John Reinard Owens, 39, ran northeast from the crash scene. Traces of blood and hair were embedded in the Hyundai’s front windshield. Just before midnight, Owens emerged from the woods at his house on Aldrich Road, about 1 ½ miles from Bakerview and Northwest. Police were there waiting for him. Shards of glass were embedded in Owens’ hands. His scalp was bleeding, and his eyes were bloodshot.

Since then Owens has been in jail.

John Owens appears in Whatcom Superior Court at the Whatcom County Jail Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, accused of causing a serious crash Sunday night that left one person in critical condition.

The defendant

Owens’ record of bad driving goes back to the ’90s. He was convicted of driving under the influence in 1994, 2009 and 2013; driving with a suspended license in ’95 and ’08; reckless endangerment in ’94; and reckless driving in ’97. In 2010, he failed to use a required ignition interlock, a device where a driver has to pass a breath test to start the car.

On New Year’s Day, a week and a half before the T-bone crash, Owens was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Earlier in the night he seemed “out of it” when he walked into a minimart on Slater Road and picked out a few things to buy, according to charging papers.

Once he tried to check out, he realized he didn’t have any money. Owens got mad and stormed out of the store, hitting a woman with the door as he left, a clerk told sheriff’s deputies. Then he started driving around the parking lot at high speeds in a gray Hyundai Azera registered to Owens’ mother. The clerk called the cops.

Around 2 a.m. another driver reported a gray car passed him while eastbound on Slater. The gray car slammed on the brakes, blocking the road, and reversed in the man’s direction, according to charging papers. The Hyundai driver shouted at the other man, who reversed at 40 mph to avoid being hit.

A sheriff’s deputy found Owens driving to his home on Aldrich, in the dark with no headlights. Owens parked and climbed out holding a 20-ounce can of Budweiser, according to the charges. He dropped the beer when he saw the deputy. He was booked into jail, but the next night he posted $5,000 bond.

Owens took his mother’s car again on the night of the crash. As police searched for Owens, his mom told them he’d been taking anti-psychotic drugs and Suboxone, to wean him off opiates.

Blood tests from Jan. 10 came back negative for alcohol. He pleaded guilty in May to vehicular assault while driving in a reckless manner.

The sentence

Robins and her family did not attend the court hearing Wednesday. A legal assistant read letters to the judge on their behalf. In her statement, Robins asked the judge to hand down the maximum prison sentence. State law suggests a range of 22 to 29 months. That seems “woefully inadequate,” said Quinn, the prosecutor.

Owens wept as his attorney, Jeff Lustick, gave an overview of his life: abandoned as a child by his father; abused physically and sexually by neighbors; counseled for mental problems as early as second grade; a witness to the gruesome death of a close friend at age 15; addicted to drugs and alcohol for much of his adult life; and mentally ill. Around the time of the crash, Owens was having delusions that the FBI had put a chip in his body to track him, his attorney said.

Owens read a two-minute apology, at times calm, at times crying. He said he made no excuses for what he did.

“I’m sorry that Miss Robins was hurt so much in this process,” Owens said through sobs. “She is an innocent person, and I never meant to harm her or anyone. I beg her forgiveness, and I pray that she will recover from what I did, and be healthy as well. Every day I’ve thought about her.”

Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis sentenced him to 26 months in prison, as suggested in the plea deal. Assault charges from the New Year’s case were dropped in the deal, but Owens must admit guilt in District Court next week to driving under the influence. He’ll be on probation for five years, and he’s ordered to get treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

“All of which he desperately needs,” Lustick said.

The judge told Owens she hopes this is the last time she sees him in court.

He replied: “It will be, your honor.”

The complete victim impact statement from Katherine Robins, 20, of Lynden

The pain that this man caused to me, my family, and my fiancé (Dakota) is unexplainable. We were told that he was a drunk driver. Then I learned when I got home that there was no alcohol or drug content in his system. He, in his sober mind and legal driver’s license (which is unbelievable to me that he had his license after getting a DUI 10 days prior, and lots of prior charges) decided that he was going to drive at 80 to 100 mph without any headlights on and just run a red light like he’s the only person on earth. And he, in his sober mind, fled while I was on the ground dying and my boyfriend was crying out to me and holding my head up so I could breathe. Dakota had to literally watch me as I was being taken away by the paramedics being told that I probably wasn’t going to make it, and having to talk on the phone with my dad and tell him that his youngest daughter might not live, and if she does she may not be normal.

I remember waking up with a breathing tube down my throat and being so confused and writing on a piece of paper, asking if I was going to die. I remember screaming in pain, literally feeling like my insides were on fire as they tried to control my pain. I remember hearing voices and seeing people in my room who I knew weren’t actually there, all caused by the hard drugs I was on. I remember throwing up and shaking from being so freezing, then a second later being drenched in sweat from withdrawals from drugs. I remember fearing for my life, and not feeling safe. I remember sobbing in the hospital because none of this was fair. My life got taken away. My family and Dakota had to go through the grief of believing that they lost me. I would like to make one thing perfectly clear: I would be dead if it wasn’t for God saving me. Everyone thought I was going to die, and the doctors were shocked that I lived. The doctors didn’t know if I was going to have permanent brain damage because of the bleeding on my brain. His actions did kill me, but God is on my side and heard the cries of my family and Dakota. When I finally got to go home, I couldn’t even sit down or get up without someone’s help. I couldn’t bathe myself. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself. I couldn’t go to sleep by myself in the fear that I wasn’t well. I always felt out of breath and my heart would be racing.

Now, five months later, I’m still in physical pain. I’m still sore, my arm is still broken and it hurts so badly and I may have to get surgery, it hurts to breathe because of my ribs, I get so physically and emotionally drained, I have a compromised immune system that I always have to cater to. (Since my spleen is removed my body is unable to fight off serious infections, which can be fatal.) And I’m just able to start singing again, which was my life being a worship leader on staff at (Christ the King Community Church in) Bellingham. My vocal cords were damaged and I’m not allowed to sing that much yet, like I used to. The doctor told me I will have permanent brain damage if I hit my head again in the next couple years. He said I’m not allowed to ride a bike, go hiking, etc. I also haven’t been able to drive until just a couple days ago, due to the brain injury. I’ve gotten no apology from him and his family. And I’m upset that the state wasn’t protecting innocent people, and he was legally driving after having a DUI 10 days before. It’s obvious that he doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and if this is the way he drives, even being sober, he should never have his license again. Driving is a privilege, and if you prove over and over again that you aren’t a safe driver and it makes innocent people who are responsible drivers suffer, then you shouldn’t ever be able to drive again.

His actions caused my family, my fiancé, and I pain that we’re still not over. Physical and emotional. That we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives. After learning that he wasn’t drunk, I went on the Bellingham Herald and watched the video of him the day after the accident. I watched as they described the crime that he just committed, and him acting like he wasn’t listening to a word that they were saying, and gesturing his hands like, “So what?” I also watched as a man asked on the video, “How is the woman?” and a man answering him, “She’s alive, but it doesn’t look good.” And his only reaction to that is being annoyed at the camera, hiding his face and being so saturated in himself and showing no remorse, no regret, not paying one ounce of attention to the people he affected. I hope he receives the maximum sentence, and I hope our court system will make an example of how our laws and penalties should be harder, and that he has to serve more time, pay more fines and jail time than others in the past. Our current system doesn’t penalize people like him hard enough (for) his lawless actions and lack of caring about others around him. The system failed me by letting him drive on January 10, and I hope it doesn’t take him killing someone to finally give him the punishment he deserves, and from it others know our law takes reckless and drunk driving seriously.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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