Grief and heartache were palpable in an Island County courtroom Wednesday afternoon as loved ones of Sharon Gamble and Kenneth Weikle spoke about the devastating consequences of impaired driving.
Danielle Cruz, the woman responsible for the collision that killed the Everett couple, wept audibly as she listened to the speakers describe all they had lost because of her decision to drive while high on a cocktail of drugs two years ago.
Cruz, a 41-year-old former Lynnwood resident, pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide. Island County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Cliff sentenced her to 17.5 years in prison, which was recommended by both her attorney and the prosecutor as part of a plea bargain.
A lawsuit against Cruz and the state Department of Transportation is ongoing. The civil trial was recently continued in Snohomish County Superior Court to March 25. The family of the accident victims claims that Washington State Ferries is liable for not preventing Cruz from driving off the ferry on the day of the accident despite obvious red flags.
Court documents state that Cruz drove her Ford Explorer erratically on the way to the ferry and rear-ended another car in the ferry line. On the ferry, Cruz fell asleep behind the wheel, and ferry employees had difficulty waking her but let her drive off.
An analysis of blood taken from her after the collision showed she had fentanyl, methamphetamine, Lorazepam and gabapentin in her system.
Gamble and Weikle were visiting Whidbey Island just before Christmas in 2021 when Cruz struck their Mercedes E350 head-on on Highway 525 near the intersection with Campbell Road. Gamble died at the scene and Weikle passed away two weeks later at Providence Hospital in Everett. Cruz was seriously injured.
Family members and friends described how 77-year-old Gamble and 78-year-old Weikle had been together for 12 years. They lived in Everett and were beloved by family and friends who remember them as kind, accepting and generous.
Paul Miller, Gamble’s son, described how his mother loved to craft all year round and sold her wares at Christmas bazaars. The couple used the money to buy blankets for homeless people.
Miller addressed Cruz during the hearing, saying she destroyed many lives by her actions.
“I want you to know that my mother and Ken were the most special, most loving, caring people I have even known,” he said, “and I’m proud to call her my mother and Ken my best friends. You took them from me. You took all of that from me. You took Ken, who was the love of her life.”
Weikle’s son, Ash Sexton, described the shock, helplessness and confusion he felt after learning about the accident and rushing to the hospital to figure out what happened. He and his sister spent many long days at the hospital as their father went through multiple surgeries. In the end, Sexton said he had to decide to “end the life of his best friend.”
“No one should ever have to watch someone they love suffer or take their last breath,” he said, adding that the Christmas holiday is forever changed for their family.
Sexton played a brief voicemail from his father, saying he wanted everyone to be able to hear his voice.
More than a half dozen other people also spoke about the couple and the impact the tragedy has had on their lives.
Cruz apologized to the family for her actions, but broke down crying before she could read her statement — which her attorney read for her.
“I am so deeply sorry,” attorney Matt Montoya read. “There is no punishment that would suffice for me causing the death of your loved ones. I cannot being to express the sorrow I have for my choices that have caused you so much pain. My words feel so insufficient and lacking to me. I can only imagine they sound hollow and void of any meaning to you.”
“I wish this accident took my life instead of theirs a thousand times over,” she wrote.
Deputy Prosecutor David Carman explained that the sentence recommendation was at the bottom of the standard range because Cruz had taken responsibility for her actions. She moved to Tennessee in the year between the time of the accident and the filing of charges, which was delayed while toxicology tests were pending. Carman said he was sure that he would have to ask for a warrant, but she came back on her own.
In her comments, Judge Cliff described how substance abuse disorders strike deep in “a lot of different phases of our lives” and that the courts see the results nearly every day. She pointed out that there were multiple moments on the day of the accident that should have served as a warning to Cruz.
“At any one of these points, Ms. Cruz could have stopped driving,” she said.
Yet Cliff also pointed out that Cruz has suffered. She is facing dire medical problems as a result of the collision. She had to go undergo heart surgery three times and get a new hip. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, has a permanent limp and is taking medication for depression.
Cliff acknowledged Cruz’s contrition, saying she believed Cruz would have chosen to die than to face the people she has hurt so badly. She urged Cruz to live one day at a time in recovery.
“Can you do that for today?” she asked. “Make that commitment to yourself.”