Crime

He was killed by a suspected drunk driver. Kennewick will make sure he’s not forgotten

Kennewick video shows fitness trainer leaving scene after fatal moped crash

Katie Summers, 28, faces charges of vehicular homicide and hit-and-run after killing Leonel Birrueta, 31, in Kennewick. Traffic camera footage shows her hitting Birrueta, staying near the scene for several minutes, then driving away.
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Katie Summers, 28, faces charges of vehicular homicide and hit-and-run after killing Leonel Birrueta, 31, in Kennewick. Traffic camera footage shows her hitting Birrueta, staying near the scene for several minutes, then driving away.

It’s been nearly a year since Leo Birrueta was killed at a busy Kennewick intersection.

Birrueta was riding his moped on Clearwater Avenue when Katie Summers slammed into him as she was making a left turn onto Edison Street. Summers, a Richland fitness instructor, was allegedly drunk and high at the time, police said.

In the days following the 31-year-old Kennewick man’s death, his family and friends built a roadside memorial to remember him. They said he was the type of man who would give his shirt to people in need and was willing to forgive anyone.

They wanted a memorial that they hoped would warn others about what suspected drunk driving cost them.

Now, with the help of the city of Kennewick, they have a way to remember him, and ask others not to do drink and drive.

A motorcyclist died and a woman is in jail after a crash at West Clearwater Avenue and Edison Street. Kennewick police believe Katie L. Summers, 28, was allegedly drunk or on drugs when she turned in front of motorcycle rider Leonel Z. Birrueta, 31.

Family members approached the city shortly after Birrueta’s death to ask about creating a program similar to what the state’s Department of Transportation allows on state highways and interstates. Until now, the city never had a method to put up similar signs, said Evelyn Lusignan, Kennewick spokeswoman.

City officials wanted to help them, and started creating a way for people to buy the signs to put up alongside the road.

After several meetings with the city council, officials put together a plan that the council approved earlier this year.

Leonel Birrueta memorial.jpg
October 14, 2018 - This roadside memorial is near where Leonel Birrueta, 31, of Kennewick, was killed on his moped at West Clearwater Avenue at Edison Street. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Kennewick has between two and five fatalities each year linked to drunk drivers, officials said. The program gives people a chance to remember their loved ones.

“The signs also serve as stark reminders to motorists and their passengers of the responsibility shared by everyone to drive safely and sober,” the city posted on its website.

How the program works

The request for a memorial sign needs to come in writing from a member of the victim’s immediate family, and they’ll be put as close as possible to where the crash occurred.

The signs and the memorial placard cost $500 and will be up for five years. Once they’re taken down, the person’s family can ask for the signs.

While the program started because of a suspected drunk driver, people can choose other messages to remember their loved ones, including:

  • Don’t drink and drive
  • Please drive safely
  • Please buckle up
  • Watch for riders
  • Watch for pedestrians
  • Watch for highway workers

Along with the message, a placard below them says who is being remembered.

Anyone looking for information about the program can call Kennewick Public Works at 509-585-4419.

Fatal DUI suspect Katie Summers appears before Benton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Swanberg. Public defense attorney Ryan Swinburnson was assigned to her case.

Birrueta’s family and friends were happy about having a sign up while they wait for a resolution from the court. Summers continues to face charges of vehicular homicide and hit-and-run in Benton County Superior Court. She is scheduled to go to trial in September.

“It’s obviously a tragedy,” Lusignan said. “It’s a way for the family to honor their loved ones and as a reminder about driving safely.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.
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