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Bowling pleads guilty, Weichert still on trial for 3 North Whidbey highway deaths
A 23-year-old Oak Harbor woman who was a passenger in one of two vehicles involved in a North Whidbey accident that killed three people last year pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide charges on the day before her trial was set to begin.
But the trial against her co-defendant and driver of the vehicle, 21-year-old Jordyn Weichert, started Tuesday as scheduled and is expected to continue into next week. She is facing three counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault in connection with the Sept. 3 collision.
Island County Deputy Prosecutor David Carman said he worked out the last-minute plea bargain with the attorney for Samatha Bowling this week. As a result, Bowling pleaded guilty on Monday to three counts of vehicular homicide, while a vehicular assault charge was dismissed. She also pleaded guilty to possession of heroin from a separate case.
Bowling pleaded guilty to the least-serious category of vehicular homicide, which is described as “disregard for the safety of others.” But under the plea bargain, both the prosecution and defense will recommend a sentence of five years and one month in prison, which is above the standard sentencing range.
Also as part of the plea bargain, Bowling agreed to testify against her co-defendant and friend. But to the apparent displeasure of the prosecutor, her testimony on Wednesday conflicted somewhat with what she allegedly told a state trooper on the night of the accident. Carman insinuated during questioning that Bowling was changing her story and taking more blame for the accident in order to help Weichert in the trial.
In his opening statement, Carman outlined the prosecution’s case and offered his description of how the accident occurred. He accused Weichert of taking drugs, getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and then taking off her sweater while traveling 50 miles per hour.
“Those decisions caused a collision that put two people in the hospital and cost three people their lives,” he said.
Two Oak Harbor men, 25-year-old Jacob Quistorf and 26-year-old Francis Malloy, were fatally injured in the accident; they were back-seat passengers in the 1994 Chevrolet Blazer that Weichert was driving. The driver of the other car, 33-year-old Brian Wood of North Vancouver, B.C., was also killed in the crash.
Wood’s wife, 31-year-old Erin Wood, suffered a head injury. Bowling’s pelvis was fractured.
Carman said Bowling was holding the steering wheel for Weichert during the “wardrobe change,” but the vehicle started drifting off the road and both women jerked the steering wheel to the left, causing the vehicle to veer into the oncoming lane and collide with the Woods’ Subaru.
“The Blazer went up and over the Subaru Outback, using it more like a ramp,” he said. The Blazer rolled a number of times and landed on its roof hundreds of feet away, leaving a “a massive swath of debris,” he said.
Weichert’s attorney, Diego Vargas of Bellevue, reserved his opening statement until after the prosecution rests.
Three witnesses to the accident or its aftermath testified. Oak Harbor resident Robert Berka described how he was driving just in front of the Woods’ Subaru and was almost struck by the oncoming Blazer on the straight section of Highway 20 near Monkey Hill Road. He said the Blazer suddenly veered toward the shoulder, then veered back toward the centerline.
“It looked like it was going to take me completely out. Looked like it was going to come through the driver’s door,” he said. But the Blazer missed his vehicle by just a matter of inches, he said. In his rearview mirror, he saw the Blazer strike the Subaru, then it appeared from the motion of the headlights that the Blazer rolled.
Oak Harbor resident Nancy Schule described driving up to the scene and seeing the eerie sight of the “driverless” white Subaru drifting down the highway. She then saw the Blazer flipped over on the road and a body in the middle of the road and realized there had been an accident.
Schule said she got out of her car to help and Weichert “came out of nowhere.” She tried to calm the young woman, who was frantic and trying to “wake” Malloy, who was face-down in the road. Emergency medical personnel asked Schule to help hold Weichert’s head still, she said, but the upset woman was “uncooperative.”
David Morgan, who lives right next to the collision site, also testified about helping out at the scene. He and other citizens were at the accident before police or other emergency responders arrived; the collision occurred just before 9 p.m. He said someone noticed a puddle of blood next to the upside-down Blazer and screamed that there was someone underneath it. He and the others pulled the vehicle onto its side and found Quistorf trapped inside.
Morgan was obviously upset as he described how they tried in vain to remove the terribly injured young man from the wreckage. Shortly afterward, paramedics ruled that he was dead.
Four law enforcement officers who responded to the scene testified for the prosecution. They all emphasized the sheer amount of debris on the highway. Deputy Chris Garden said the scene “almost looked like a war zone.”
Trooper Jason Nichols testified about his conversations with Weichert and Bowling at the scene and later at the hospital. He said they both told the same story of how the collision occurred, which was the same as what the prosecutor described in opening statements.
But Bowling offered a different story on the stand. In questioning, she first explained that the Blazer was her vehicle. She and Quistorf picked up Weichert and Malloy just prior to the accident. She let Weichert drive as they headed north from Oak Harbor.
But Bowling said Weichert was actually putting on a jacket inside the vehicle. She said she grabbed the steering wheel without permission or a request from Weichert. Under cross examination, she said the accident did not occur immediately after the sweater-changing incident, but 20 to 30 seconds later.
Carman questioned her about why her recollection was different than what she told troopers on the day of the accident. She maintained it wasn’t.
“I remember everything that happened inside the Blazer just as well as when it happened,” she said.