A Walla Walla man will serve five years and eight months in prison for causing a deadly head-on crash in 2012 while passing a vehicle on Highway 12.
The wreck killed his sister and her friend, and seriously injured a Richland woman and a 7-year-old.
Henry L. Thacker, 40, was sentenced Friday morning at the high end of the 51- to 68-month standard range he faced.
“I understand the pain and the anger that’s involved in this type of situation,” Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Scott Wolfram said in imposing the sentence after hearing a victim’s emotional pleas for an exceptionally longer term.
But he pointed out that state law limits the amount of time he can impose.
“This was not an intentional thing that I intended to do,” Thacker, fighting back tears, told Wolfram. “I am very sorry,” he added, saying that if he could take away everyone’s pain and hurt, he would.
Wolfram gave Thacker credit for 232 days he’d already served in jail, placed him on a year of community custody, a form of probation when he’s released from prison, and assessed him $77,485 in legal financial obligations, including restitution.
The collision occurred as Thacker was driving a westbound 1997 Toyota Corolla at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 2012, about 4 miles east of Wallula Junction. In passing a vehicle, he collided head-on with an oncoming 2003 Dodge Intrepid, driven by Lynda West, now 54, of Richland.
Thacker’s attorney, Jerry Makus, acknowledged in court his client was negligent and civilly liable, but said he made a mistake. Had the case gone to trial, the prosecution would have had to prove criminal conduct as opposed to negligence.
Thacker pleaded guilty Jan. 21 to two felony counts of vehicular assault relating to substantial injuries suffered by West and another survivor, Andres Media-Garcia, then 7, who was Thacker’s passenger. Also in the car Justino Garcia, 11.
Thacker admitted he drove with disregard for the safety of others when the wreck occurred.
He also had been charged with two counts of vehicular homicide stemming from the deaths of two of his passengers, his 36-year-old sister, Ruth E. Garcia of College Place — with whom he reportedly was very close — and her friend, Angelique Garcia, 37, of Pasco, who was Andres’ mother.
But in an agreement with the defense, Nagle dismissed those charges in exchange for Thacker’s guilty pleas. Nagle said in an interview that based on a difficult-to-define legal standard, he might not have been able to prove his case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt had Thacker gone to trial.
Vehicular homicide, unlike vehicular assault with disregard for the safety of others, is defined as a “strike” under state law. Thacker’s criminal history of nine felonies includes two “strikes.” Therefore, if he had been convicted of the deaths he would have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
That would have been fine with West, whose vehicle Thacker struck. Her lower legs were severely injured in the crash. She sustained multiple other injuries, continues to suffer pain and has difficulty participating in everyday activities.
With her husband Alan by her side, West read a several-page statement, sobbing and angrily speaking of her profound physical, mental and emotional loss.
“I stand before you broken, scared and oftentimes alone,” she told Wolfram.
She regarded Thacker as a dangerous, repeat offender who should be locked away for a long time, and lashed out at Nagle for entering into the plea agreement.
“(The crash) wasn’t just an error, it wasn’t just a mistake,” she said, later calling it predictable and preventable.
But Thacker’s mother, Bertha Thacker, responded that she lost a daughter and her son lost a sister.
“(West) does not know the hell we went through either,” Bertha Thacker said.
According to a risk assessment report submitted by Dwayne Evans, community corrections officer with the state Department of Corrections, Thacker’s previous nine felonies include kidnapping and assault.
Thacker’s criminal history includes ramming his truck into a Pasco patrol car and being fired at by an officer before driving his truck down a 20-foot embankment. Then, when left alone in a Kennewick Police Department interview room without handcuffs, he escaped from the building while wearing a hospital gown.
Thacker got a three-year, seven-month sentence for that case in Benton County Superior Court.
Thacker claims he committed most of the crimes while under the influence of methamphetamine or alcohol, according to Evans’ report. However no drugs or alcohol were involved in the 2012 fatal crash.
“ ... Mr. Thacker said his memory (of the wreck) is kind of fuzzy,” Evans wrote. “He does not remember trying to pass another vehicle but remembers an impact and spinning around. Mr. Thacker was very emotional about what he saw following the accident as his sister was dead next to him.”
Thacker now understands his decision to pass on the highway that day cost two lives. He believes the system has been fair, that he pleaded guilty to the appropriate crimes and is “OK with doing his time,” the report says.
The initial four charges against Thacker, who reportedly suffered leg injuries, were filed last April and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He later was apprehended in Pennington County, S.D., was returned to Walla Walla in July and booked into jail.
But Nagle explained in an earlier interview he agreed to drop the vehicular homicide charges because the jury could have determined Thacker’s conduct behind the wheel amounted to ordinary negligence under state law, not rising to the level of criminal activity.
Thacker then would have been acquitted of all charges in the case. His guilty pleas to vehicular assault assured two convictions.
In addition to no drugs or alcohol being involved, no witnesses would testify Thacker was driving badly except the passing that resulted in the wreck, Nagle added.
And “the pass started in a passing zone, but was not completed by the time the no-passing zone started,” he said.
“So it would have been a very close jury issue for both sides (of the case).”