By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
MARYSVILLE — A recently licensed teenage driver was going double the speed limit and his car likely went airborne before a crash last year that killed him and seriously injured two classmates, Snohomish County sheriff’s investigators concluded.
Juan Mendoza, 16, died in the Oct. 24, 2011 wreck. Passengers Lars Kundu and Andy Vavrousek, now 17 and 18, suffered serious injuries.
Mendoza’s death was wrenching for the wider community around Marysville Getchell High School, where he was a strong student and soccer standout.
Kundu’s family continues to pursue a $50 million damage claim against Snohomish County. The claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleges that unsafe road conditions contributed to the crash on 108th Street NE.
Sheriff’s crash detectives reached a different conclusion.
“The speed of the vehicle involved in this incident is the primary cause of this collision,” a report says.
The county released the sheriff’s investigation in response to a public-records request from The Herald.
The investigators’ report concluded that the 35 mph posted speed limit and limited sight distance were not factors in the crash, as the damage claim alleges.
The Kundu family’s attorneys, Jim Dore and Ann Deutscher of Kent, remain skeptical about the investigators’ conclusions and how long it took to reach them. They previously asked that an outside police agency investigate the accident, a request the county, so far, has rebuffed.
“It’s unfortunate,” Dore said. “What they’re trying to do is to blame a young kid who’s not here to defend himself.”
Dore said the road was unsafe even at the posted speed limit. He said engineers hired to consult on the case put the maximum safe speed at 17 mph.
The crash occurred at 2:19 p.m., after the three students had left school for a trip to a store, intending to return for cross-country practice.
The detectives’ report gives this synopsis:
The teens were traveling west with Mendoza at the wheel, Kundu riding shotgun and Vavrousek in the backseat when they passed 83rd Avenue NE toward a steep section of 108th Street NE. The hill is about a mile from Marysville city limits, west of Highway 9.
At that point, the 1997 Honda Civic that Mendoza was driving went off the right side of the road, down an embankment and crashed into trees. Mendoza died at the scene. His two passengers were airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.
Mendoza had only obtained his driver’s license four months earlier. Under state law, the intermediate credential prohibited him from carrying passengers younger than 20 who are not family members.
Witnesses told detectives the car appeared to be traveling more than 50 mph. One man estimated the speed at more than 70 mph.
The crash happened along a stretch of the road where there is one sign advising a 30 mph maximum speed, and another warning of the steep grade. The road surface was wet at the time of the crash.
Two witness reported seeing the Civic lift off the ground as it crested a hump at the top of the hill, and travel airborne for 30-plus feet.
Based on witness statements and calculations, sheriff’s deputies estimated the likely speed was 60-76 mph at the time of the crash. They said the low estimate of 50 mph appeared unrealistic because their tests showed that wasn’t fast enough for the car to lift off the ground.
In interviews with deputies, several students reported hearing Kundu and Mendoza talk before the accident about driving fast down the hill. Some said they’d accompanied them on previous attempts.
“(T)here is certainly enough information that I did develop that shows a pattern for going down this hill to ‘get air’ or ‘jump,’” a detective wrote.
Vavrousek has largely recovered from physical injuries suffered in the crash, according to his family.
Kundu, however, continues to heal from wounds to his head, spine and other injuries, according to the damage claim. The claim accuses the county of neglecting to fix the steep slope, poor sight distance and lack of warning signs. It also says the county failed to maintain the road surface.
This summer, the county began a $900,000 safety overhaul on the stretch of road the Kundu family attorneys called into question.
The county has said its decision to schedule the roadwork was connected to the approval, in November 2011, of a new housing development just north of the crash site. That approval for the 10-lot Marysville Highlands subdivision required a safety review of the 108th Street corridor from 67th Avenue NE to Highway 9.
“It’s the county’s position that the roadway wasn’t unsafe to begin with, but there were some changes to the roadway’s geometry to increase its drivability,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Michael Held said. “I’m not sure that there are any changes planned for that section of roadway beyond what’s already been undertaken.”
Dore, the Kundus’ attorney, asked why the county made the changes if there was nothing wrong with the road. He said the damage claim, not the proposal to build houses, led to the needed upgrades.
“Until we screamed about it, until somebody suffered, nothing happened,” he said.
In addition to the damage amounts, the Kundus asked the county to hire a consultant, or even appoint a board, to examine future safety improvements.
The county’s roadwork involves about 800 feet of 108th Street NE. Much of the work is complete on lower portions of the project, though crews earlier this week continued work at the top of the hill.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction, Oct. 19, 2012: A headline on a previous version of this story incorrectly stated which family disputes the investigators’ findings.