Man who left wreck cleared of charges he left girlfriend behind

There is no evidence that a 51-year-old man was abandoning his seriously injured girlfriend in November when he walked away from a Kennewick car crash, a judge said Monday.

Testimony presented in a bench trial for Arthur Franklin Gilbert showed he was trying to get help for his passenger after smashing his SUV into a parked car, ruled Judge Robert Swisher.

Gilbert was acquitted of a hit-and-run with injury charge. He had waived his right to have a Benton County Superior Court jury hear the case.

"I'm not going to find the defendant guilty," Swisher said at the conclusion of the 1 1/2-hour trial. "He was involved in an accident, there is no question about that. He checked on his passenger, then left the scene ... He didn't go to the closest house (for help). He went to a house that he knew a block and a half away."

The judge added that logically a person in a situation like that would call 911 at the first available place.

However, the Washington statute doesn't say the driver needs to stop at the first house they see, Swisher said. Gilbert went to the nearby home of a friend, knowing she would be there and could quickly call for police and paramedics.

Gilbert, of Richland, has been in custody since the Nov. 18 crash in the 600 block of East Third Avenue in Kennewick. He isn't free though, because before the trial Gilbert pleaded guilty to first-degree driving with a suspended license, a gross misdemeanor.

At sentencing Thursday, Gilbert faces a minimum sentence of six months with the possibility of spending up to a year behind bars.

Gilbert reportedly had fallen asleep at the wheel of his 1994 Ford Explorer just before 3 a.m. when it crashed into an unoccupied 2000 Ford Mustang. The Mustang, which was totaled, had been parked outside a repair shop where the owner was fixing it up for his son.

Gilbert got out of the Explorer and headed west on Third Avenue. He left behind passenger Juanita Schatz, 56, who suffered a severe gash on her forehead that later required 10 staples.

Deputy Prosecutor Megan Bredeweg, who called eight witnesses including several Kennewick officers to the stand Monday, explained that Gilbert never intended to come back for Schatz because he didn't want to get into trouble for not having a license. It was only when officers found him in a darkened yard in the 400 block of Third and aimed a Taser light at him that he surrendered, and yet he still didn't mention he needed help for Schatz, said Bredeweg and police.

But defense attorney Larry Zeigler pointed to Schatz's testimony that Gilbert helped her out of the car and, when she couldn't walk because of her injuries, told her to wait on the curb while he got help. Schatz said she eventually got up and started walking to their friend's house when police arrived. The friend also testified that Gilbert had pounded on her front door and, instead of calling 911, she threw on clothes to see if she could help Schatz.