Dayton man not guilty in cyclist's death

A jury on Thursday acquitted Melvin J. Bohleen of vehicular homicide in the death of Sara S. Eustis.

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WALLA WALLA -- A man driving on Middle Waitsburg Road last May who struck and fatally injured a bicyclist was acquitted Thursday afternoon of the crime of vehicular homicide.

The eight-woman four-man Superior Court jury in the Melvin J. Bohleen trial reached its unanimous not-guilty verdict about 5 p.m. after a little more than two hours of deliberations.

Bohleen had been accused of driving "with disregard for the safety of others" when his Jeep Cherokee struck Sara S. Eustis from behind on the morning of May 21 as they were heading south between Valley Grove and Chase roads, about four miles north of Walla Walla. She was pronounced dead at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

Bohleen, 73, of 300 Cherry St., Dayton, maintained that for some reason he simply didn't see Eustis until the moment of the collision.

After the verdict was read, Bohleen sat down at the defense table and appeared to breathe a subtle sigh of relief.

Later, outside the courtroom, he told the Union-Bulletin, "My apologies to the Eustis family. That's all I can do."

His attorney, Michael Hubbard -- who maintained at the trial the collision was a terrible accident -- added, "We appreciate the work of the court and jury in reaching a just result."

Eustis, 61, of Seattle, was in the Walla Walla area to celebrate her nephew's graduation from Whitman College the weekend she was killed. Her sister-in-law, Teresa A. Wolber, also of Seattle, was her bicycling companion that morning.

Wolber said in an interview she isn't happy with the verdict.

"We were hoping a guilty verdict would open the dialogue about cars and bicyclists sharing the road," Wolber said.

"We hope he never drives again."

To convict Bohleen of the crime of vehicular homicide, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he disregarded others' safety when he struck Eustis. That standard is a more-aggravated form of negligence than ordinary negligence, but falls short of recklessness.

Nagle told the Union-Bulletin after the verdict that the jury did its job.

"We've said all along this is the kind of case that has to be decided by a jury because 'driving with disregard for the safety of others' is vague," Nagle said.

"And they decided it."

He added this morning that a clarification of the law would assist his office in deciding which cases to prosecute and would better guide a jury in reaching a verdict.

"It would be really, really helpful if the Legislature provided us with a better definition," Nagle said.

If convicted of the felony charge, Bohleen would have faced a standard-range prison term of 15 to 20 months.

He had a valid driver's license at the time of the collision, but hasn't been allowed to drive under a restriction of his pretrial release.

However, Judge Donald W. Schacht released him of all conditions because of the jury's acquittal.

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

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