More than four years after a 2010 Memorial Day weekend car crash killed a Washington, D.C., woman, a Kenai man last week pleaded guilty to manslaughter for recklessly causing the death of Kathleen Benz, then 25. At a hearing Oct. 30 at Kenai Superior Court, Alfred Jones, 51, entered guilty pleas for one count of manslaughter and one consolidated count of third-degree assault for placing six other crash victims in fear of death or injury. Charges of second-degree murder, driving under the influence and fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance, methamphetamines, will be dismissed, subject to the approval of Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran.
In the agreement, Jones faces between 7 and 11 years in jail, said Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders. Since being charged in June 2012, Jones has been in custody at Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai. After the crash, he served an 18-month federal sentence for money laundering and was in the process of being released from federal prison when Alaska State Troopers got a warrant for his arrest on the Homer charges and had him extradited to Alaska.
Jones was one of 17 Kenai Peninsula residents alleged to have deposited drug money in Alaska banks. Other defendants in the case were alleged to have smuggled 6,000 tablets of oxycodone between Alaska and Nevada in 2009 and 2010.
Benz died of her injuries from a May 29, 2010, crash near Mile 163.5 Sterling Highway between Homer and Anchor Point. In charging documents, Kenai Police Officer Casey Hershberger, who responded to the crash as part of a Bureau of Highway Patrol team, said Jones drove north in his GMC truck when he drifted over the centerline, forcing three southbound cars off the road. Two other cars also were forced off the road.
Benz was a passenger in a Subaru driven by Daniel Fairchild driving behind the other cars. Cars avoiding Jones’ truck kicked up dust and dirt. Fairchild couldn’t avoid being hit by Jones’ truck, and it hit the passenger side of the Subaru where Benz sat. She suffered severe head injuries and died at South Peninsula Hospital. Fairchild and another passenger, Christine Hung, also suffered injuries, as did Jones.
Fairchild, Hung and people in two other cars forced off the road were friends of Benz she knew from attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The group had visited Alaska for a wedding and been heading to Homer to camp on a family friend’s land.
Hershberger said in his affidavit that witnesses claimed Jones did not try to get back in his lane or avoid other cars. Hershberger’s complaint alleged that a blood draw taken from Jones showed he tested positive for metamphetamines, oxycodone, cocaine and marijuana. Jones had filed a motion to suppress the blood test, but that was withdrawn as part of the plea agreement.
Troopers said Jones has 14 convictions in Alaska, including two driving under the influence convictions and 12 driving offenses. He also has been convicted of refusing to submit to a breath test, driving while license revoked, driving while license suspended and leaving the scene of an accident.
Those convictions will be considered as aggravators in sentencing, Leaders said. Jones also admits to an aggravator of conduct that created a risk of injury to three or more people. Aggravators are prior conduct that can be considered in sentencing and possibly add more jail time. Under Alaska Department of Law rules regarding plea agreements for serious crimes like manslaughter, Leaders said sentencing is open and at the judge’s discretion. A sentencing hearing with Judge Moran is scheduled for Feb. 12 at the Kenai Courthouse. Jones will receive credit for time served since his arrest.
Shaun Seal of the Office of Victims Rights said it’s atypical that a sentencing hearing would not be held in the community where the crime happened, and that under Criminal Rule 18, Homer is the presumptive district court and superior court site for Homer cases.
“This presumption dovetails with a victim’s right to be present for all hearings, and with the idea of community participation,” she said in an email.
Homer attorney Andy Haas, working under contract with the Office of Public Advocacy, represented Jones in the plea agreement. Haas said that he could not speak on the case without Jones’ permission.
Leaders said Benz’ family was notified of the plea agreement, and her father attended last week’s hearing telephonically. Citing family privacy, the Benz family had said in earlier emails that it declined comment on the case.