Vancouver, WA The victims filed toward the front of the courtroom one by one, shedding tears as they faced the defendant in an orange jumpsuit, hunched at a table. They told about their father, their brother, the popular teacher in the white lab coat.
Then it was the widow’s turn. Composed, she approached the bench. She looked down, adjusted the microphone and glanced at the notes in her hands.
“Hi, I’m Carrie Patterson, Gordon Patterson’s wife,” she said softly. “We were married 23 years. But a distraction on a text message caused us his death.”
That distraction, the judge ruled Friday, will cost Antonio Cellestine, 18, five years of his life.
In what’s believed to be Washington’s first vehicular homicide conviction due to text-messaging, Cellestine was sentenced to 60 months in prison. Phone records indicate Cellestine was texting his girlfriend at the time his car hit and killed the Hudson’s Bay High School teacher.
Cellestine, a former student of Patterson’s, wasn’t drunk or high on drugs. But in the eyes of Clark County Superior Court Judge Roger Bennett, it didn’t matter.
“I’ve heard the term ‘accident’ used quite a bit today,” Bennett said after Cellestine pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and felony hit-and-run. “But this was no accident.”
Patterson’s family, friends and students packed the courtroom, along with police officers and reporters. Some had to stand for the entire hour-and-a-half.
Patterson, 50, was hit at 4 p.m. Sept. 15 in a bike lane near the top of the hill on Northeast St. Johns Road. He was riding his bicycle home from school when Cellestine’s car trailed into the bike lane and struck him from behind. Cellestine then sped away.
Based on witness statements and evidence gathered at the scene, officers arrested Cellestine the next day on suspicion of hit-and-run. They seized his cell phone and subpoenaed records from his cell phone company.
The records showed Cellestine had received and sent numerous text messages in the time leading up to and during the crash, said Deputy Prosecutor Jim David.
That constituted a disregard for the safety of others, David said, so prosecutors filed the vehicular homicide charge earlier this month.
“By focusing on the texting as opposed to driving, he wasn’t paying attention because he was watching his cell phone,” he said.
Cellestine first made up a story to police about smoking a cigar while driving and brought it up again in court Friday. But police say they found no evidence he was smoking.
Vehicular homicide convictions are normally reserved for drug and alcohol-related crashes. But since July 2008, when texting while driving became illegal, prosecutors can use it as a reason to charge a defendant with vehicular homicide.
Friday’s conviction was “the first one we’re aware of” in Washington, David said, noting that he consulted prosecutors throughout the state on the matter.
A few other cases have recently been filed. Among them: A Bellingham teenager was arrested on suspicion of vehicular homicide for allegedly driving and texting when he hit and killed a pedestrian on New Year’s Day. He also was accused of drinking. That case has yet to be resolved.
The precedent didn’t seem to matter to Patterson’s family members and friends. They spoke before the judge and Cellestine about Patterson’s widespread celebrity as a teacher and the outpouring of community interest since his death.
In addition to talking about Patterson’s love for his students and his involvement in Boy Scouts and church, his daughter, Julie, 20, said he was even a better dad.
“I never understood loss until I lost my dad — my best friend,” she said, her voice breaking. “I will always miss my dad … and I know he will be looking at us from his window in heaven.”
The biggest loss, Carrie Patterson said, was losing the future.
“He impacted thousands with his life,” she said. “And we can only imagine how many more it would have been if he was still here.”
Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or firstname.lastname@example.org.