KENNEWICK — A 34-year-old man with an obvious drug problem only was thinking of himself when he drove away after crashing into two motorcyclists, a Benton County judge said Thursday.
Chad Michael Sehnert should not have been behind the wheel of his truck July 21 when he slammed into the motorcycle, causing both of its riders to lose a leg, said Judge Craig Matheson.
Sehnert, who told the court he was ready to take his punishment, expected a two-year sentence that was recommended after lengthy plea negotiations. But Matheson decided it wasn't enough, and ordered five years behind bars.
Matheson noted that in January 2011, six months before the horrific wreck, Sehnert was arrested for driving recklessly and under the influence of a prescription drug when he tried to evade police.
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The Benton City man had another DUI arrest just three weeks later, Matheson learned Thursday.
That criminal history -- combined with the circumstances surrounding the collision and the lasting impact on victims Jan Rennebohm and Joe Toregrase -- warrants an exceptional sentence, Matheson ruled.
"I think that is a fair disposition in this situation given the serious nature of the injuries and the selfishness in which you departed the scene," he said. "You obviously were dealing with a serious drug problem, but you weren't dealing with it well. You had months and months before this happened, and were out driving a heavy piece of equipment, and you caused tragic injuries to two individuals."
The couple and their lawyer had earlier addressed the court and asked for maximum punishment.
After the Benton County Superior Court hearing, Toregrase told the Herald, "I feel a little more vindicated."
Sehnert entered an Alford plea in January to two counts of vehicular assault with aggravating circumstances for excessive injuries. The Alford plea means he denied committing the crime but believed prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.
In his plea statement, Sehnert said he was taking advantage of the prosecutor's plea offer because he didn't want to risk a harsher penalty if the case went before a jury.
At the same time, Sehnert pleaded guilty to the January 2011 case of attempting to elude police, a felony, and DUI, a gross misdemeanor.
The sentencing range for vehicular assault is one year and 10 months to two years and five months. The recommendation was for Sehnert, who had no prior felony history, to get two years.
Matheson initially did not realize Thursday that Sehnert's conviction included the aggravating circumstances. Once Deputy Prosecutor Megan Killgore cleared it up, the judge announced that it gave him authority to go above the standard range and order 60 months.
A shorter sentence of one year and two months on the attempted eluding charge will be served at the same time.
"Well, this is certainly a tragedy for the victims. It's also a tragedy for your family, I'm sure, and for yourself," Matheson said to Sehnert.
"I think you can do better but you need to make sure that you avoid drugs and, if you need surgery, I suppose you should get it. But you definitely should not be driving a vehicle, understand?"
Sehnert nodded his head to Matheson.
Dennis Hanson, who represented Sehnert on the attempted eluding case, said his client's life changed in 2008 while on the job in Shoreline and his "back popped." Sehnert eventually became addicted to methadone and went into a severe depression because he could no longer work.
"This is not who he is. He's a person who made mistakes and a person ready to take responsibility," Hanson said. He mentioned that Sehnert will be sentenced in Benton County District Court later this month on a separate DUI charge from his Feb. 18 arrest.
Sehnert was high on methadone when his truck slammed into Toregrase's motorcycle on the Old Inland Empire Highway, west of Benton City.
Toregrase has told the Herald that Sehnert's 2012 GMC truck then reversed over him, hitting him again and losing a tire before the truck continued down the road.
Deputies found his tire near the crushed Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle, along with a mile-long gouge in the road from the cycle to Sehnert's truck. Sehnert was arrested and taken to jail.
Rennebohm, 62, and Toregrase, 46, have been together for about 23 years. They both lost their left leg, have limited use of their left arms and hands, and suffered numerous other injuries.
Rennebohm told the judge that in the months since, she has talked to people about Sehnert's actions that night and questioned how they might react in the same situation.
"You say to yourself, 'What would I do if I'd done something like this to someone and saw them bleeding to death?'" Rennebohm said, seated before the judge in her wheelchair. "I think I know what I would do, but I know exactly what Chad would do. He would drive away and let me sit there."
"He had enough presence to drive off and not mention that two people were sitting (on the shoulder of the road) bleeding to death," she added.
Rennebohm, who is insured and on disability, said their medical bills now are just a few thousand dollars shy of $1 million. The couple have to pay their private lawyer, John Schultz, who has helped them in the aftermath of the crash, while Sehnert gets two attorneys for almost free on his criminal cases, she said.
"I don't think I'm ever going to work again, and it doesn't really look like Joe is going to be able to go back to work either. He is broken up really bad," Rennebohm said. "I would just like to say that every single solitary day I can't do a task like I used to."
Defense lawyer Sal Mendoza Jr. described Sehnert as a decent individual with a kind heart who has been concerned about Rennebohm and Toregrase since the crash. The second question Sehnert had for him after they met was, "How are the victims?" Mendoza said.
Sehnert turned to the couple in the audience and apologized, saying he is "truly, truly sorry for that night."
"I know what happened and I know what went wrong. I'm ready to take that punishment for what happened," he said. "When I get out I want to try to help those people out as much as I can. ... I didn't know I was that bad (with his drug addiction) until this occurred."
Sehnert was ordered to have no contact with Rennebohm and Toregrase for 10 years. A restitution amount, which should include the victims' medical costs, has not yet been set.
He can appeal the exceptional sentence because Matheson went above the standard range.