BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – Luke Peterson, a 27-year-old ranch hand and timber worker from Naples, Idaho, will spend 1 1/2 years incarcerated for killing a couple and their toddler daughter in a drunken-driving crash last summer.
Only one member of the family survived the early morning crash. Lyssa Saunders was 2 months old at the time. She suffered a broken arm and brain damage after fracturing her skull in seven places. She attended Peterson’s sentencing Tuesday morning, held by her sobbing grandparents during the nearly four-hour hearing in a packed Boundary County Courthouse.
The hearing offered a chance for family members of the victims and for Peterson himself to make statements. After everything was said, 1st District Judge Charles Hosack declared the case one of the toughest he’s had to pass judgment on.
The crash happened early July 29. Peterson had spent much of the evening playing pool and drinking at the Lantern tavern in Bonners Ferry.
While driving a pickup home on U.S. 95, Peterson crossed the centerline and smashed into a sedan carrying 24-year-old Bart Bartron, his fiancée, 21-year-old Tabitha Saunders, and the couple’s two young daughters. Bartron was serving in the U.S. Army – he was expecting deployment to Afghanistan – and was on a brief leave home to visit family.
Peterson pleaded guilty to one charge of aggravated DUI and one count of vehicular manslaughter. A sample of Peterson’s blood drawn at the hospital after the crash had an alcohol level of 0.14 percent, which is nearly twice the legal limit.
Family members of the victims were given opportunities to face Peterson in court Tuesday.
Bart Bartron’s father, Glen, who wore a camouflage jacket to court, recounted how his son had turned his life around in the military and had earned the respect of his fellow soldiers. Members of his airborne unit flew from Alaska to North Idaho to serve in the honor guard.
“There’s no room for vengeance here, but there’s no room for mercy,” Bartron said. “What there is room for is the safety of the public at large.”
Bartron added that since the crash, he spends most of his time “locked up in a camper,” getting only a couple hours of sleep each night. “It’s changed my life to the point where I don’t care if I live or die.”
Duane Saunders, the father of Tabitha Saunders, said he wakes every night picturing his daughter’s lifeless body in the hospital. Memories of the crash haunt him during waking hours, too.
“There isn’t a time when I hear a helicopter that I don’t flash back to seeing Lyssa lying on the backboard strapped down, her little arm in a cast, tubes coming out of her,” Saunders said.
Saunders is now the legal guardian of his surviving granddaughter. Her cracked skull has healed, but she continues to be fed through a stomach tube. Doctors remain hopeful for a full medical recovery.
Bart Bartron’s mother, Fern Bartron, said she would favor a lenient sentence had Peterson immediately accepted responsibility for driving. Peterson initially denied being at the wheel of the truck. She urged Peterson to take “heartfelt” responsibility for the incident and, when he does, make contact with the victims’ family.
“Help us mend,” she said, through sobs, while staring directly at Peterson. “I feel so empty and hurt. I can hardly sit here now.”
Three other family members also read statements. Tabitha Saunders’ mother was so distraught, however, that her statement was read by an employee of the court.
Testimony was also offered by Peterson’s employers, who described him as a hard worker, who always showed up on time and wasn’t known to drink. Peterson has worked on Leonard Wood’s cattle ranch since he was 13. Peterson also works for the U.S. Forest Service and has his own horseshoeing business.
“He’s a responsible man,” Wood said. “It’s a terrible tragedy. He told me on many occasions if he could trade places with those victims that were killed, he’d gladly do that.”
Wood added that he had never known Peterson to drink more than two beers at a sitting.
Peterson cried through much of the testimony. When it was his turn to talk, he faced the family members of the victims.
“I hope you one day forgive me,” Peterson said. “Whatever sentence I may have will never come close to what I’m going to put myself through. … I am truly sorry to the world.”
Peterson ended his tearful, 10-minute statement with, “I would give my life for theirs.”
County Prosecutor Jack Douglas then showed photographs of the victims’ bodies to Peterson, who crumpled forward and sobbed harder. One of the photos was of 2-year-old Kjestine Saunders, whose body was too mangled to be viewed later by her grandparents.
“That’s pretty bad, isn’t it,” the prosecutor said.
“Pictures are one thing,” Peterson replied, after taking several breaths. “Being at the site and seeing the bodies and blood, the gasps and screams and people talking and saying things. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand why I was there.”
Peterson also added that he wasn’t trying to deny driving. “I wasn’t trying to hide behind what I said. I don’t remember much after the accident.”
Peterson’s attorney, Bryce Powell, urged the judge to allow Peterson to continue working through his sentence in some form of day-release program, so he might have a chance to begin paying down Lyssa’s $700,000 in medical bills, plus restitution to the victims’ families.
“Society does not need to be protected from Luke Peterson,” Powell said. “I feel confident to predict he will never again drink and drive.”
Douglas asked for five years of incarceration. “We have to send a message that this kind of behavior has got to stop.”
Hosack sentenced Peterson to a combined 15 years for the two charges, but only 1 1/2 years incarcerated. The rest will be probation. Hosack recommended the time be served at a community work setting, but the decision will be up to the Idaho Department of Correction.