A Yelm man and former South Whidbey resident will spend the next 11.5 years in state prison for causing the death of a Lake Stevens woman in a motor vehicle collision earlier this year.
Jeffrey Lewellen, 30, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in Island County Superior Court on Friday. He was sentenced to 138 months in jail, a period that exceeds the top of the standard range of 78-102 months by three years. It was an “exceptional sentence” for what was described as an exceptional crime — driving drunk and high, and killing Diane Sturlaugson, a much loved family woman who was on Whidbey to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary.
“If there was ever a person who lived a purpose driven life, it was Diane Sturlaugson,” said Judge Alan Hancock while handing out the sentence.
“It is just that Mr. Lewellen be punished severely for what he did.”
On May 29, Lewellen was driving his 1996 Honda Civic with two passengers — Christopher Pomeroy and Trevor Hawkins — on Bailey Road at about 8:30 p.m. He was westbound and passed two vehicles around a corner at a high rate of speed when his vehicle collided with Sturlaugson. She was eastbound and riding on a Vespa motor scooter.
The impact was severe and Sturlaugson, 68, died at the scene.
According to a police report, one witness estimated Lewellen was travelling 100 mph shortly before the collision on Cultus Bay Road. One of the drivers he passed on Bailey estimated Lewellen was going “twice as fast” as he was around the corner; the posted speed limit there is 35 mph.
Lewellen failed a field sobriety test and had his blood drawn three and half hours after the crash — the results revealed a blood ethanol level of 0.12. The legal limit is .08. The blood analysis also showed Lewellen had a blood tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level, the high-inducing compound in marijuana, of 7 ng/mL and a carboxy THC level of 40 ng/mL.
Friday’s hearing was an emotional one. The courtroom was filled with the family and friends of Sturlaugson, and many testified or read letters to the judge describing how her death had affected their lives. In a letter, her son recounted what it was like to lose his mother and how he spent his first night without her holding his father as the man wailed with grief; her daughter-in-law, who was riding behind Sturlaugson on her own motor scooter and watched her die, talked about the agony of such an experience and the nightmares that have followed; a family that’s been guided by faith has begun to question “good”; and holidays, birthdays and other occasions that are supposed to be joyous are now viewed with dread.
Nothing will ever be the same, they said.
They also talked about the kind of person Sturlaugson was, a positive woman of outstanding moral character. Kind and compassionate, her thoughts were always on others. She was a woman of faith, a teacher and role model, someone who believed one should “never pay full price for anything” and was a cornerstone of her family. As testament to her influence, many of the family members in attendance offered their forgiveness, saying Sturlaugson herself would have been the first person to offer it.
“Lastly, I would like to model how I was raised and tell Jeff Lewellen that he is given grace and the opportunity to be forgiven if he asks and desires it,” wrote her son Matt Sturlaugson in a letter to the judge. “We are not designed to be self-serving, but to serve and love others and be an example for others. My mom was the perfect example of this.”
There was a small group there for Lewellen as well. Bruce Hancock, Lewellen’s grandfather-in-law, didn’t ask for leniency but testified that Lewellen was a good father to his five children. He’s helped the Hancocks unselfishly with home projects as they’ve aged. He said Lewellen needs to take responsibility but there’s more to Lewellen than some may think.
Lewellen, dressed in orange and shackled, spent most of the hearing looking down. Tears streamed down his face as members of the Sturlaugson spoke. Defense attorney Robert McKay, also in tears, described Lewellen these past months as nearly “comatose” with guilt, that he’d read all the letters from Sturlaugson’s family and recognized the magnitude of his crime. He agreed to plead “guilty” and to the 138-month sentence.
The sentence was handed out by a judge, but it followed the joint recommendation of prosecutors and the defense. Lewellen had initially pleaded “not guilty” but agreed to change his plea and to the sentence agreement; had the case gone to trial, Deputy Prosecutor Ian Michels-Slettvet said Lewellen would have faced additional charges.
Lewellen has a prior driving while intoxicated conviction, a prior conviction of being under 21 and driving after consuming alcohol, two convictions of driving on a suspended license, three misdemeanor drug related convictions and a felony drug conviction.
“Based on his past, and his conduct on May 29, it’s clear that he gives little consideration to the safety of others in deciding how he will conduct himself on our roadways,” Michels-Slettvet said.
He called the sentence “justified.”
Judge Hancock agreed. Like many in the room, he appeared to struggle with his emotions, at times pausing for long periods while speaking. It was clear Lewellen was remorseful and taking responsibility for his actions, Hancock said. But Sturlaugson is still dead, and his regret won’t bring her back.
The exceptional sentence, he said, was “appropriate.”