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In University High School student’s fatal crash, Sheriff’s Office recommends charges

A fatal joy ride to a popular stretch of Spokane Valley roadway known among young drivers as the “Ponderosa Jump” has led investigators to recommend felony charges against a University High School teen.

Preston Maher, 16, was identified as the driver of the car that left the roadway along a hilly stretch at the intersection of East Ponderosa Drive and South Bates Road around 9 p.m. on Oct. 5. The vehicle swerved before striking a curb at “near highway speeds,” according to Spokane County sheriff’s investigators. The car struck a tree, killing fellow University High students Josie Freier, 15, and McKenzie Mott, 16.

Detectives have been scrutinizing evidence at the scene and Maher’s driving records since the crash last month, as law enforcement have beefed up patrols in the area. On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office announced it was recommending charges of vehicular manslaughter in the case.

Although The Spokesman-Review typically avoids identifying juvenile crime suspects, Maher’s identity as the driver of the car already has been widely distributed.

Friends of the teens told police the three had attended a birthday party before the crash. They left together, declaring plans “to take the Ponderosa Jump.” Investigators say the intersection is a popular location for young drivers to travel at speeds exceeding 50 mph in an attempt to briefly send their cars airborne.

The intersection lies just outside the jurisdiction of Spokane Valley police, Chief Rick Van Leuven said. He’s ordered marked cars to patrol the surrounding area, where officers have made more than 20 traffic stops since the beginning of the year.

“I’ve asked our District 3 officer to spend more time in that area when he can,” Van Leuven said. “He can’t spend his entire shift up there.”

An outpouring of grief from the University High community followed the incident. Sports teams at the Central Valley school honored the girls, and Freier’s father, Rick, organized a Marine Corps toy drive in her honor through the Spokane Valley Fire Department, where he works as an arson investigator. The school followed suit with a toy drive of its own in the girls’ memory.

Maher was treated for injuries and released from the hospital later in October. He is not in custody.

Sheriff’s Office detectives opted to pursue the charges after examining Maher’s driving school records. According to investigators, the crash occurred just a day after Maher received his driver’s license.

Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker will have final say whether Maher faces charges in the incident, and whether the 16-year-old will be tried as an adult. Vehicular manslaughter is a felony under Washington state law, punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison for offenders tried as adults. A juvenile without an extensive prior criminal record would be unlikely to receive the maximum sentence.