Painful wait for justice

MARYSVILLE — The senseless fatal crashes occurred five days apart.

Both dominated their news cycles and fanned public outrage.

On July 24, in what police called a case of road rage, a father of two was killed when a Snohomish man allegedly chasing another car crossed the center line n

ear I-405 in Kirkland. Steve Lacey, 43, a software developer for Google, died at the scene in a head-on collision.

On July 29, a Lake Stevens woman, 26, was killed when a man allegedly trying to outrun Marysville police blasted into her car just west of I-5. Meghan Stivers, an accounting student who was working her way through college, died at the scene.

In each case, police believe drunk drivers were to blame for the loss of innocent lives.

While the King County suspect awaits his trial in jail on $1 million bail, the other remains free here.

Such is the reality of vehicular homicide investigations where police and prosecutors must weigh the risk of another offense against the constitutional clock that guarantees the right to a speedy trial.

Investigations often last months. There are lab tests that can take weeks to get back, and collision reconstruction equations to solve that make story problems look like child’s play.

Washington State Patrol trooper Keith Leary said he understands that people can find it hard to comprehend that someone suspected of a drunken driving death can be out of custody while a victim’s family endures the agony of losing a loved one.

“We are not going to make everybody happy, but we are going to do an investigation that if it was your family member you are going to want us to do, the most thorough investigation we can, regardless of the time it takes,” he said.

A month after the fatal crash near Marysville, detectives continue to wait for blood-test results for the suspect as well as final autopsy findings.

“There’s still a significant amount of other work yet to be done,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. “These investigations take time, as frustrating as that can be. It’s important that we do things right. We don’t want the suspect or defendant to get off on a technicality.”

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said vehicular homicide investigations are different from the majority of felonies because they depend so heavily on detailed and technical follow-up reconstruction work.

“In order to do a proper investigation, it takes time,” Darrow said.

As for waiting to confine most vehicular homicide suspects while the case is under investigation, “If it wasn’t working, we would change it,” the prosecutor said.

Darrow said his office encourages police agencies not to book suspects in potential vehicular homicide cases right away “unless there is a good reason.”

Those reasons might include solid proof of a suspect’s drug abuse, a history of not showing up for court hearings, or lack of a verifiable home address.

In the King County case, prosecutors asked for $1 million bail for Patrick Rexroat, whose blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. The Snohomish man, 56, also displayed erratic behavior after the accident, reportedly pounding his chest when he got out of his sport utility vehicle.

A Washington State Patrol trooper was at the hospital when Rexroat’s blood was drawn for testing. The trooper wrote that the Rexroat allegedly said, “I can’t go to prison. Just can’t do it. I’ll kill somebody again.” While pointing to his forehead, he reportedly told the trooper “Please shoot me right here.”

To King County prosecutors, the comments indicated that the defendant posed a continuing risk to the community and to himself, according to court papers. They filed charges three days after the accident, in part to keep the man under lock and key.

Frank Blair knows how hard it is to wait for charges in a vehicular homicide case. His daughter, Sheena Blair, 24, and her friend, Martin “Tony” Ramirez, 19, were killed in February 2010 when a drunken driver got behind the wheel of her sport utility vehicle and headed toward a north Everett bar. She was driving the wrong way on Broadway when she slammed into Blair’s car.

A blood test hours after the accident showed that Camille Spink’s blood-alcohol level was more than double the legal limit.

She initially was not charged.

“It took about three months in our case,” Blair said. “It was hard for us to understand. The perpetrator was with her family and we were not with our daughter.”

The wait for justice was hard, but Blair said he came to appreciate why it was necessary.

“In our vehicular homicide case, the investigation was every bit as thorough as a murder investigation,” he said. “You have to know what you are talking about before you start yelling.”

Spink, 29, is now serving seven years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault.

In the case of Meghan Stivers, the suspect remains out of custody. The Arlington man, 45, has not been charged. He has an earlier drunken driving conviction.

Detectives continue their methodical investigation of Stivers’ death. Her family said this week they are not ready to discuss the case with a reporter.

The fatal collision occurred on a Friday night in July near the intersection of 33rd Avenue and Marine Drive just west of I-5.

Stivers’ car was hit by a Dodge truck. The driver was being chased by police who suspected he had been drinking.

The man hit two other cars a few blocks away, police said. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for minor injuries. Police say he is under investigation for vehicular homicide, eluding a police officer and hit and run.

Court records show the suspect has a 2005 drunken driving conviction. It stemmed from a noninjury traffic collision on Broadway in north Everett.

The rear-end accident involved the suspect’s Dodge Ram truck and a Ford Focus. Records from the 2005 case show the defendant had a blood alcohol reading of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08.

A police officer wrote in a report at the time that it took the drunken suspect more than two minutes to try to pull out his driver’s license and proof of insurance from his wallet.

He was sentenced to a year in jail with all but two days suspended. He was allowed to serve that time at an alternate confinement program at the fairgrounds in Monroe.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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