The South Whidbey woman involved in a fatal two-car collision on South Whidbey in February was drunk, according to documents released by the Washington State Patrol.
Blood samples taken from Michelle Nichols, 46, several hours after the crash revealed her blood-alcohol content was .11, which just exceeds the state limit of .08. And while aspects of the investigation are still wrapping up, authorities say there is enough evidence for a vehicular homicide case.
“She’s going to get charged, we just want to make sure we have everything,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said this week.
Nichols is the survivor of a Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day crash on Highway 525 that killed Tim Keil, a Freeland man. Nichols was southbound in a 1988 Ford Van and had just passed the intersection at Coles Road when her vehicle collided with the guardrail on the right side of the state route. The van then crossed the centerline and struck a northbound vehicle, a silver 1993 Honda Accord, driven by Keil, the Washington State Patrol reported.
Keil, 61, died at the scene and Nichols was severely injured and airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Jo Keil, children and grandchildren. Mary Jo Keil said Monday the months since his death have been difficult. Her birthday was Sunday, and the celebration just wasn’t the same without him, she said.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t miss and think about him,” she said.
The investigative and court process is frustratingly slow, she said, but it’s comforting to know police and county prosecutors are being thorough, “dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s.”
Nichols declined to comment for this story.
Details of the case, such as Nichols’ blood alcohol content, were obtained by The Record through a public records request to the state patrol. It was filed April 9 and the documents were received this month.
According to the agency’s referral to the prosecutor’s office — an official recommendation to charge Nichols with vehicular homicide — state patrol Detective Jeffrey Rhue investigated Nichols’ whereabouts before the accident and determined she may have consumed four beers — three at China City and another at Freeland Cafe.
Rhue’s report said she showed up at China City at about 5 p.m. with a friend, where three Irish Duff beers were purchased for Nichols. A witness later told investigators that Nichols left at about 7:30 p.m. and “appeared drunk.”
They relocated to Freeland Cafe where Nichols’ friend bought her a Black Butte Porter beer. He told investigators “he believed Nichols went outside to smoke around 8 p.m. and he did not see her again,” the report said.
The accident with Keil occurred a short time later, at about 8:40 p.m.
Keil was reportedly driving home from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Clinton after dropping off a friend. The coroner concluded that he died from blunt force trauma to his trunk as a result of the collision, Rhue wrote.
According to the records, Nichols was pinned in her vehicle and suffered a broken leg. Once removed, she received treatment in an ambulance while the airlift was in route. Trooper Nick Hagg was on scene and said in his report that neither he nor paramedics could smell alcohol on Nichols, though a registered nurse said Nichols admitted to drinking earlier in the evening. Also, a South Whidbey Fire/EMS official at the accident who treated Nichols said he could smell an odor of alcohol on Nichols and another said she’d seen Nichols at China City.
After Nichols was transported to Harborview, Trooper Ryan Hagreen arrived at the hospital to speak with her but she was unconscious. According to his report, doctors confirmed that she’d been given two units of blood and the decision was made to draw her blood for testing. They did not have a warrant at the time, the report stated.
“At 12:30 a.m., I contacted Nichols again and she was still unconscious,” Hagreen wrote. “I informed Nichols that she was under arrest for vehicular homicide and read Nichols her Miranda warnings from my department issue card. … Nichols remained unconscious and unresponsive from the time I arrived at Harborview Medical Center until the time I left.”
According to court documents, Nichols’ blood was taken due to “exigent circumstances” — matters of timeliness where evidence can disappear or a judge can’t be reached.
Banks said they’ve asked the state patrol to do some follow-up investigation, such as looking at Nichols’ vehicle to rule out possible mechanical issues that may have contributed to the crash. He was unsure how long the additional work would take, but said he was confident the office will press formal charges.
Vehicular homicide has three different prongs: driving under the influence, driving in a reckless manner, or driving with disregard for the safety of others. Banks said Nichols could be charged with one or more of the charges, depending on what the additional investigation reveals.
“We just won’t charge until we have a complete report,” Banks said.
He declined to comment on possible hurdles of any case the county brings against Nichols, but search warrant issues and her low blood-alcohol content may be points of discussion during a trial, he said.