January 20, 2012 in City

Retrial begins in 2006 Idaho road rage death

By The Spokesman-Review
Meghann Cuniff photo

Jonathan Wade Ellington and his girlfriend leave Kootenai County District Court during a break in the opening day of his murder trial on Thursday for a 2006 road rage incident.
(Full-size photo)

Prosecutors say he used his vehicle as a weapon against two sisters and their mother in an angry road encounter fueled by his own rage.

But Jonathan Wade Ellington’s lawyers told jurors at the opening day of his murder trial Thursday that the North Idaho man was simply trying to get away from gunfire when he ran over and killed Vonnette Larsen on Jan. 1, 2006.

“It’s a tragedy, but it’s not a crime,” said John Adams, head of the Kootenai County Public Defender’s Office.

Ellington, who is out of jail on bond, is charged with second-degree murder for the death of Larsen. He also faces two counts of aggravated battery for allegedly ramming a Honda Civic carrying Larsen’s daughters, Jovon and Joleen, during a road rage encounter on Scarcello Road north of Coeur d’Alene.

A jury convicted Ellington of related charges in September 2006 and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the Idaho Supreme Court overturned the conviction last year after determining Idaho State Police Cpl. Fred Rice lied on the stand about accident reconstruction methods. The ISP cleared Rice of wrongdoing. He is not expected to testify at the trial, which is scheduled to last two to three weeks before Kootenai County District Judge John Luster.

The fatal encounter began when Ellington allegedly punched the daughters’ car window and the girls, along with their parents, took chase.

According to testimony, the sisters were driving to their parents’ home in Athol early in the morning when they noticed a Blazer behind them. They thought it might have been a neighbor whose driving they frequently criticized, Joleen Larsen said.

Ellington claims the sisters were playing a “cat and mouse game” before he passed them abruptly and stopped his Blazer. He got out, approached the girls’ Honda and yelled at them before punching their window. He turned his car around, and the sisters said he nearly hit them as he drove away. They called 911 and were soon following him at speeds between 80 and 90 mph.

Ellington eventually pulled over in hopes of retreating to a friend’s home, Adams said, but the Larsens blocked him in.

Adams said the girls and their parents weren’t just following Ellington – they were “hunting” him.

He said Ellington accelerated toward Larsen after a bullet shattered his windshield.

Adams said the Larsens could have left Ellington alone – they were a five-minute drive from home. The problem, Adams told jurors, is that they believed “nobody behaves this way to the Larsen sisters” and insisted on chasing Ellington. Adams said the sisters described Ellington as a “Mexican on crack.”

Art Verharen, who is prosecuting the case with top Kootenai County prosecutor Barry McHugh, said it was Ellington who had a clear path to flee but “He did not take that lane.” He said Vonnette Larsen’s husband, Joel Larsen, fired a single shot to try to disable Ellington’s motor when he saw him striking his daughters’ vehicle and heard Ellington’s Blazer accelerating.

“He thought Mr. Ellington was killing his daughters,” Verharen said. “He thought they were being crushed.”

Larsen unloaded the pistol’s final four rounds in the direction of Ellington’s Blazer after his wife was run over, Verharen told jurors.

Joleen Larson, now 24, cried Thursday as jurors heard her frantic phone conversation with a 911 dispatcher as her sister sped after Ellington. She became briefly unintelligible on the call after Ellington rams the her vehicle and strikes her mother.

“Oh my god, my mom,” Joleen said on the 911 tape. “He ran her over!”

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