Trial opens in cyclist's traffic death

Melvin J. Bohleen of Dayton is charged with vehicular homicide in last spring's death of Sara S. Eustis.

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WALLA WALLA -- An eight-woman four-man jury has been selected to decide the fate of a motorist facing a felony charge for striking and fatally injuring a bicyclist on Middle Waitsburg Road last May.

The trial of Melvin J. Bohleen, 73, of 300 Cherry St., Dayton, got under way with opening statements Wednesday afternoon in Walla Walla County Superior Court at the County Courthouse.

Bohleen is charged with vehicular homicide, which accuses him of driving with disregard for the safety of others when he struck Sara S. Eustis between Valley Grove and Chase roads, about four miles north of Walla Walla.

Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle outlined for the jury what he expected the evidence to reveal.

Defense attorney Michael Hubbard termed the crash "a terrible accident" and told the panel that for some unknown reason, "My client just never saw Ms. Eustis until the moment of this collision."

Officials said Bohleen was heading south in a 2000 Jeep Cherokee about 10:30 a.m. May 21 when he drove up behind Eustis, 61, of Seattle, and her sister-in-law, Teresa A. Wolber, who was a companion bicyclist.

Wolber testified Wednesday that she was ahead of Eustis and was closer to the shoulder of the road.

After the Cherokee struck Eustis, she was taken by ambulance to Providence St. Mary Medical Center where she was pronounced dead. She had been in the Walla Walla area to celebrate her nephew's graduation from Whitman College.

Bohleen reportedly was distraught after the wreck. He suffers from diabetes and resulting macular degeneration, but had a valid driver's license with provisions for corrective lenses and medical restrictions.

Investigators saw no signs that he was impaired and there's no evidence he tried to avoid the collision, according to a Sheriff's Office report filed in court.

Hubbard told the jury Wednesday that Bohleen was traveling the speed limit, driving normally and in his own lane of travel.

Hubbard has acknowledged in court documents that Bohleen's failure to see Eustis amounts to ordinary negligence, but maintains it is not criminal.

For the jury to convict Bohleen of the criminal charge of vehicular homicide, the panel must find beyond a reasonable doubt that he disregarded others' safety, which is a more-aggravated form of negligence amounting to a gross deviation from the required standard of care.

The trial is expected to end this week. If convicted as charged, Bohleen would face a standard-range prison term of 15 to 20 months.

He has not been arrested pending the outcome of the case. However, he is not permitted to drive, according to a condition of his pre-trial release.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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