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Driver in fatal crash gets jail

Kevin T. Culp
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Kevin T. Culp (The Spokesman-Review)

The man responsible for a July 2005 crash that killed three members of a family was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison Friday.

Kevin T. Culp, 22, will serve at least a year and a half before he is eligible for parole, 1st District Judge Charles Hosack said.

Authorities believe Culp had a seizure the afternoon of July 23, then drove across a median on Interstate 90 near Post Falls and into oncoming traffic.

“He had to make a decision that he just could not drive,” Hosack said of Culp, who has a seizure disorder and has never had a driver’s license. “He didn’t make that decision.”

Culp’s vehicle hit a tractor-trailer before crashing head-on into a minivan driven by Spokane Valley resident Henrietta Lewis, 40.

She was killed, along with her sister, 30-year-old Tonia Lewis, of Pendleton, Ore. Tonia Lewis’ 9-month old son, Ebin Lewis, died about a month later from injuries suffered in the crash.

Three others were injured: Tonia’s husband, Travis Lewis; Henrietta Lewis’ 11-year-old son, Riven Fenton; and family friend Robert Buckley. The family was headed to Silverwood Theme Park near Athol.

Travis Lewis limped to the witness stand Friday and told how he has coped with the loss of his wife, their only child and his lone sister.

“I’m just getting to the point where every day I don’t wake up and wish I was dead,” Travis Lewis said, crying. “Every morning I sit on my porch and cry … Every night I speak to them. I ask Tonia to take me with her.”

Dorothy Lewis said her grandson, Ebin, took his first steps the day of the crash. She lamented that she will never again see her daughter, Henrietta, dressed in Native American regalia and dancing at the Pendleton Round-Up.

She said Riven Fenton began wrestling this past year and won a first-place prize, but his mother wasn’t there to see him.

“Travis, Riven and myself have been sentenced by you, Mr. Culp, to a lifetime without our loved ones,” she said.

Psychologist Daniel S. Hayes testified on behalf of the defense, saying Culp’s seizure disorder was difficult to control. Culp’s girlfriend testified previously that he hadn’t taken his seizure medication for three days before the crash.

Even in jail, where Culp is given medication daily, he suffers up to 13 seizures a day, Hayes said.

He said there’s a period following each seizure where things might be “cloudy” to Culp – a phase that could last for hours or days.

Hayes said he didn’t think Culp had the ability the day of the crash to decide whether he should have been driving.

His public defender, Bradford Chapman, urged Hosack to suspend whatever sentence he handed down.

“Whatever the court does today, whatever anyone does today, Kevin’s going to serve a life sentence,” Chapman said.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Lansing Haynes said Culp played Russian roulette when he got behind the wheel that day.

“There’s nothing I can really say to the family this happened to to apologize for it,” Culp said. “I can say something like this will never happen again … I know that it hurt the family a lot, and it hurt me, too.”

Culp is also a defendant in a manslaughter case in Spokane County. He was charged in 2004 for allegedly shooting a man to death while fiddling with a loaded gun. A jury deadlocked in the case.

He is expected to be retried this year.

Culp was initially charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter in Kootenai County, but the charges were reduced through a plea agreement to a single count naming all three victims.

He faced a maximum 10-year sentence.

“The court made a wrong decision,” Roderick Culp, brother of the defendant, said Friday. “My brother is innocent.

“It’s messed up,” he said. “It’s my brother.”

Following Friday’s sentencing, Travis Lewis said no punishment changes the fact he lost his family.

“Justice won’t be served unless he feels my pain every day,” he said.

He flipped through a photo album as tearful relatives stood beside him in the hallway at the courthouse.

“This is our son before he was born,” he said, pointing to a picture of his pregnant wife, standing sideways and smiling with her round belly exposed.

Another picture showed a happy-faced little boy standing in his playpen.

“He was always happy,” Travis Lewis said. “He always let out a little scream when I said, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ “