Matthew Wharton, 27, pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts of vehicular homicide and one count of felony hit-and-run for his actions in the one-vehicle crash March 4 that killed Eric Goms, 35, of Tumwater, and Jeffrey Koden, 34, of Olympia. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor imposed the sentence immediately after Wharton pleaded guilty.
Wharton was driving a Honda Civic north in the 3700 block of Libby Road Northeast about 1:30 a.m. when the vehicle crossed the southbound lane, struck a ditch and a tree, then crossed the roadway again and crashed into a fence on the northbound shoulder. Goms and Koden were ejected and died.
Passenger Steven Yarbrough of Shelton was injured but survived.
The group was celebrating Goms’ birthday, said Goms’ father, John.
Alcohol likely played a role in the crash, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jim Powers said. Wharton’s fleeing the scene prevented troopers from gathering evidence to prove he was intoxicated, Powers said.
A blood trail indicated that Goms crawled across the road in an effort to get assistance, Powers said. He died after being transported to Providence St. Peter Hospital. Neighbors told troopers afterward that they’d heard someone yell to Goms to “shut up” while he was moaning, Powers said. They also reported two people having a conversation that included, “the cops are coming,” he added.
Powers said Wharton showed a “callous disregard to Mr. Goms” by failing to help him.
Goms’ and Koden’s family members spoke to Judge Tabor about losing their loved ones Thursday. Koden’s father, Rob, told Wharton that “it is cowardly, cold-hearted and unbelievable” that he left to hide as his son lay groaning and bleeding.
He added that he hopes Wharton gets help to turn his life around in prison so that he can lead “a full life,” because his son would have wanted it that way.
Koden’s mother, Carlynn, told Tabor that “Jeffrey was our first-born son. There is just such a big hole in our lives right now.”
Goms’ sister, Dawn Medina, also said she hopes Wharton can recover from the tragedy, because her brother “wouldn’t hold a grudge.”
Outside court, John Goms said he believes Wharton should have been given a longer sentence.
“The same judge gave me 11 years in prison for having less than a gram of cocaine,” he said.
Tabor sentenced Wharton to the high end of the standard sentencing range for hit-and-run in a deadly crash. The standard range for that crime is longer than for vehicular homicide.
Wharton cried during the hearing, and a corrections deputy handed him a tissue so he could lift his handcuffed arms to wipe tears. Wharton addressed the court, apologizing for deciding to drive that night.
“I don’t even know how I can even start to apologize to all of you for the accident that took my best friends’ lives,” he said.
Wharton said “it’s not like you’re picturing it, that I just left my friends in the woods to die.” He said he checked on each of his friends but became scared when he saw police lights, and he jumped a fence and ran. Evidence from the global-positioning device on Wharton’s phone shows he was hiding nearby as police and emergency personnel rendered assistance, Powers said.
Wharton said he is trying to overcome his addiction to alcohol and hopes he one day can speak to groups about his experience to help others overcome addictions.
“Hopefully, I can start saving lives,” he said.
Family friends of Wharton’s also spoke Thursday and said he’s a good person. Wharton recently lost his mother to cancer, and his father also has cancer, one family friend said.
Wharton said he wishes he could have the night of March 4 back.
“I am going to have to live with this for the rest of my life,” he said.