Grieving families find justice, mercy in traffic-death sentence
Seattle Times staff reporter
With tears, hugs and a 13-year-old's somber poem, two families said goodbye Friday to a father of five and accepted what they felt was justice for the two sorrowful men who caused his death.
Surrounded by her children, including the 6-week-old son her husband, Gavin Coffee, would never meet, widow Heidi Coffee told a grandfather and grandson that she forgave them for failing to secure a shelving unit to the bed of their truck in August. The unit flew out of the truck while Brian W. Campbell and William E. Clark drove along Interstate 5, causing a multicar accident that killed Gavin Coffee, a 43-year-old Lake Forest Park father and children's pastor.
Campbell, 22, and Clark, 77, became the first people in the state to be charged under Maria's Law, named for Maria Federici, a Renton woman who was blinded and permanently disfigured when a piece of particleboard flew off a trailer and into her car in 2004.
The men pleaded guilty Friday in King County District Court in Redmond and received the sentence requested by the Coffee family: 200 hours of community service, to be used spreading the word about Maria's Law; $1,138 in fines; and restitution in an amount to be determined. The misdemeanor was punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The sobs began almost as soon as family and friends of both families gathered in the courtroom.
Gavin Coffee's brother Brett remembered Gavin, the eldest of six children, as a moral compass and faithful friend to his siblings. "There really is no sentence that can fix the pain and loss," he said.
As he spoke, the Coffee children cried quietly, except for newborn Silas Gavin Coffee, who cooed softly in his mother's arms. Eleven-year-old Natalia said in a statement read by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Karissa Taylor that she misses her father's laugh. "I wish I could have said goodbye," she wrote.
Coffee's eldest, 13-year-old Laurisa, wrote a sonnet. "Can I show my face with so much grief? No person could take his hard-to-fill place."
Before Judge Linda Jacke delivered the sentence, Heidi Coffee spoke of the pain of losing her husband. "I still look for him in the evening," she said. "I feel as if part of my life died with him."
But Coffee emphasized she didn't harbor anger toward Clark and Campbell, who both sobbed, at times uncontrollably, during the proceedings. Later, she clutched coral-colored roses Campbell's mother, Connie, gave her.
Clark said he will regret his decision not to tie down the shelving for the rest of his life. Later, he turned to the Coffees: "I say a prayer every night for those kids. It hurts like the devil ... " he gasped, breaking down in tears.
Federici said she felt good about the sentence and hoped the tragedy brings awareness to the problem of unsecured loads.
After the sentencing, Heidi Coffee said her children are coping with the loss of their dad but that she hopes they will benefit from grief counseling. She expressed thanks for the community support and said she, too, hopes people will learn from her husband's death. "This law is not an inconvenience," she said. "It's so worth it to take the extra few minutes to make sure your load is secure."
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published January 20, 2007, was corrected January 22, 2007. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brian Campbell was sobbing. Campbell and his grandfather, William Clark, were sentenced for failing to secure a load on the bed of their truck, causing a fatal accident.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company