A Camas woman was sentenced Wednesday to nearly five years in prison for failing to stop after her vehicle struck a man using a walker to cross Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard in October.
Stephen Dewey, 65, died about a week later from injuries sustained in the crash.
The driver, Jessica VanWechel, 31, pleaded guilty in Clark County Superior Court on June 12 to hit-and-run death.
In an eerie coincidence, court records show that VanWechel lost her mother in a hit-and-run collision in 1991 in Texas. The driver was never apprehended. During her childhood, VanWechel was in and out of foster homes and endured abuse from family members.
“She has experienced the pain and suffering family members here are experiencing,” her attorney, Louis Byrd Jr., said Wednesday, referring to Dewey’s friends and family members who attended the sentencing.
Judge Robert Lewis said he couldn’t imagine how someone who had experienced a family member’s death from a hit-and-run collision could then commit the same crime.
“It’s unfathomable that a person who caused this kind of injury would not stop,” Lewis said. “It’s even more unfathomable that someone who lived through a family member’s death (from a hit-and-run) would not stop.”
The hit-and-run occurred at about 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at the intersection of Mill Plain and Southeast 105th Avenue. The traffic signal for east-west traffic on Mill Plain had turned green while Dewey was still in the crosswalk. Witnesses said he was trying to hurry across when he was struck, according to court records.
VanWechel was apprehended about four months after the collision, when detectives matched paint chips and headlight lens fragments found at the scene to the make, model and color of her vehicle. Vancouver police issued a bulletin in February asking local patrol officers to look out for a damaged powder blue Toyota. A Camas police officer spotted the car and arrested VanWechel.
She admitted to a friend that she had looked down to send a text when her car struck Dewey. She fled the scene because she didn’t have insurance, according to prosecutors.
She apologized Wednesday for her actions.
Dewey’s best friend, John Sargent, and Dewey’s sister, Susan Ojala, described Dewey as intelligent, articulate and inquisitive.
“I will forever miss him,” Sargent said.
“Losing Steve was very hard, and the way we lost him was very hard,” Ojala said.
But, she said, her faith instructs her to forgive.
“I do forgive you,” she told VanWechel. “I appreciate the fact that you pled guilty, even though it took awhile. Notwithstanding, there are consequences for your actions.”
She said she hoped VanWechel would be an example to others to not text and drive and to stop and render aid when an accident happens.
In addition to her prison term, VanWechel will be required to pay restitution in an amount to be determined. Her driver’s license will be revoked for a period of a year after her release.
VanWechel’s prior convictions include driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and possession of stolen property.
Byrd and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu jointly recommended VanWechel’s 57-month sentence. In exchange for VanWechel’s guilty plea, Vu dismissed a charge of vehicular homicide.