January 21, 2011 in City

Husband recounts fatal crash

Defense claims accident was not a criminal act
By The Spokesman-Review

Gary Keller remembers the crash that killed his wife and left him paralyzed: He said it started with a silver flash.

“I remember a big crash, and I remember flying through the air and hitting the ground, and I was in a lot of pain,” Keller, 61, said Thursday in the opening day of a trial in Spokane County Superior Court for Jon A. Strine on charges of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault.

Prosecutors say Strine, a Spokane stockbroker, was drunk and speeding in his 2002 silver Mercedes when his car slammed into Keller and his wife, Lorri Keller, 48, on their Yamaha motorcycle on June 2, 2009, at West Fourth Avenue and South Browne Street in Spokane. Both were wearing full-masked motorcycle helmets.

Keller, who was driving the Yamaha V Star 1300 motorcycle, testified from his wheelchair next to the witness stand in Judge Tari Eitzen’s courtroom.

Strine, 43, posted $10,000 bond a day after the crash and has been out of jail since.

Carl Oreskovich, considered one of the region’s premier defense attorneys for vehicular homicide cases, called the crash “a terrible, tragic, horrific accident” but said Strine made just a simple driving error just before the crash – a last-minute lane change – not a criminal act.

“Although this may have been a bad driving decision, it was an ordinary bad driving decision,” Oreskovich said. “It wasn’t a criminal bad driving decision.”

Just before the trial began, Eitzen rejected a request from Oreskovich to keep Keller out of the courtroom during testimony, saying Keller’s right to be present outweighed concerns about prejudicing the jury.

Keller is expected in the courtroom for the duration of the trial. He was about to retire from Burlington Northern Santa Fe when the crash occurred; Lorri Keller was the assistant secretary at Regal Elementary School in north Spokane and had worked for Spokane Public Schools since 1990.

Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady said several people who were driving near Strine at the time of the crash will testify that he was driving dangerously.

But Oreskovich said traffic cameras show Strine was not driving erratically. He also disputed the accuracy of a crash reconstruction by police that pinpointed Strine’s speed at 54 mph. Oreskovich said Strine was driving about 38 mph. The speed limit is 30 mph.

Keller also testified that Strine appeared to be driving about 35 mph.

A state test measured Strine’s blood-alcohol level at 0.20, and police say he smelled of alcohol, but Oreskovich said the tests are “unreliable.”

Witness testimony will show Strine had about 4  1/2 drinks in 3  1/2 hours, Oreskovich said.

“The evidence will show you that is well within the legal limit in the state of Washington for operating a motor vehicle,” Oreskovich said.

Strine, employed at Vorpahl Wing Securities, had stopped at the Press bar, 909 S. Grand Blvd., for a drink and spoke with a waitress who said she’d applied for a job at Fast Eddie’s, 1 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.

Strine knows the bar’s owner and offered to introduce her to him, so they drove there and Strine drank about a beer and a half, Oreskovich said.

Jurors will see surveillance video from the bar in which Strine does not show signs of intoxication, Oreskovich said.

Oreskovich said Strine was southbound on Browne when he realized he was in a lane that would take him to Interstate 90. He sped up and passed the car to his right so he could proceed southbound on Browne, Oreskovich said. That’s when he struck the Kellers, who were in the area to find a doctor’s office where Gary Keller had an appointment the next day.

“He was unfamiliar with the South Hill,” Oreskovich said of Keller.

Keller said he’d made a wrong turn and looped around before stopping at a stop sign on Fourth. His wife pointed in the direction of their destination before they proceeded into the intersection, he said.

“We weren’t in any hurry,” Keller said.

Trial testimony continues Monday at 9:30 a.m.

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