Judge sends man to prison for hit-and-run crash that severely and permanently injured bicyclist - East Idaho News
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Judge sends man to prison for hit-and-run crash that severely and permanently injured bicyclist

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PRESTON — A Smithfield, Utah man will spend at least 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to a hit-and-run crash that left a male bicyclist bleeding in a roadside cornfield for four hours.

Christopher James Ward, 25, pleaded guilty to a felony charge for leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in serious injury after reaching a plea agreement with the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. As part of the agreement, an additional felony charge for concealing or destroying evidence was dismissed.

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District Judge Mitchell Brown issued his sentence on Thursday after hearing testimony from four witnesses and statements from the victim and Ward.

Brown expressed concern for the ongoing well-being of the victim, who was not present in court and, according to family members, is not and will never be the same since the collision. The judge called the crash a “horrific and tragic incident” with “devastating and lifelong results.”

Brown addressed claims made by defense attorney Diane Pitcher that Ward was not drunk but was looking at his phone when the collision occurred.

He said the truth regarding Ward’s blood-alcohol concentration at the time of the crash would never be known due to his choice to leave instead of calling emergency responders.

“(Ward) didn’t act, in my view, as a reasonable person would,” Brown said.

Pitcher asked the judge for leniency, saying Ward did not know at the time of the collision that he had hit someone. She requested a rider or probation.

Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Vic Pearson argued against that request, saying that, in this particular case, there needed to be a harsh penalty. Pearson said that, for the sake of punishment for this crime and deterrence of future similar crimes, the penalty needed to be severe.

“We need to make sure that when a situation like this happens, the individual stops, calls, and reports the incident to law enforcement,” Pearson said.

Brown agreed with Pearson regarding punishment and deterrence, and ordered Ward to spend a minimum of 18 months and up to five years in prison.

Christopher James Ward
Christopher James Ward | Cache County Sheriff’s Office

Ward was arrested on Oct. 26 following an investigation that involved the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho State Police.

The crash occurred on Oct. 16 when ISP received a 911 call around 9 p.m. reporting a hit-and-run and a seriously injured victim. When emergency responders arrived, they had to stabilize the victim before he could be taken by ambulance to an area hospital. At the hospital, he was prepped for helicopter transport to a hospital in Utah.

The following day, ISP troopers were provided surveillance video from an intersection near the crash. The footage showed a Volkswagen Jetta, with significant damage, leaving the area “at a high rate of speed” around 4:45 p.m.

That Jetta was later found and seized at an autobody shop in Utah. Ward, the vehicle’s owner, had taken it to the shop for repair following what he said was a collision with a deer. It was later learned Ward had reported to his insurance company that a collision with a deer in Utah had caused the damage.

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Before Pearson called witnesses to testify, Pitcher laid out her understanding of the incident.

She said that Ward had consumed two or three alcoholic beverages the morning of Oct. 16. But, she added, his body had metabolized that alcohol by the time the collision occurred, around 5 p.m.

Pitcher said Ward was looking at his phone to find a song to play when he “deviated quite far” from his path and struck the victim, who was riding a bicycle alongside the highway.

She continued, adding that Ward’s decision to take his eyes off the road was not much better than had he been drunk. But, she concluded, this understanding shows how dangerous inattentive driving is.

“We’re all just one missed Adele song away from almost ending someone’s life,” Pitcher said.

Because Ward’s blood alcohol at the time of the crash is not known, she told the court it could not be considered an aggravator.

The first witness called to the stand was the victim’s sister, who told the court through a court-assigned translator that she was there when her brother was found around 8:50 p.m.

She described the victim as being “covered in blood.” She said he could barely breathe, and the bone in his right leg was exposed.

Before the crash, she said her brother was a “good person” who worked hard to care for his two young children.

Since the crash, she added, “he’s recovered a little, but he’s not the same as he used to be.”

She said, “his head isn’t quite right,” and he will never walk again.

An EMT who was the first responder to arrive also offered testimony. He said he found the victim partially covered in corn and “down to his last breaths.” Both legs, the EMT said, were “twisted off” — one bent upward toward the victim’s upper body and the other at a 45-degree angle.

The EMT explained a scale of 1-15 that he applies to all trauma victims. A 3-grade, he said, is for people who are found dead. He said he gave the crash victim a 3-grade when he arrived.

“He was breathing, but not adequately,” the EMT said, and he did not respond at all when his legs were re-set.

The victim “coded” — no breathing or pulse — while being treated at the hospital, he added.

Christopher James Ward sentencing
Christopher James Ward sits beside his attorney, Diane Pitcher. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Finally, an ISP trooper who was at the scene and involved in the investigation testified.

The trooper described a massive debris field that included car parts, clothing and personal items from the victim and half of a bicycle along the highway.

Troopers found the other half of the bike in Utah — about four or five miles from the scene of the crash, he told EastIdahoNews.com.

The trooper told the court that there was no sign of an animal collision at the scene.

He also said drivers do not leave the scene in the vast majority of similar collisions — where a significant amount of damage is done to the vehicle, including the windshield. He added that only drivers attempting to hide something would drive away with that amount of damage.

When troopers seized the Jetta, they found two empty bottles of whiskey in the cabin of the vehicle — one in the driver’s side door pocket and the other in the pocket behind the front passenger seat.

Pitcher said the bottles had been in the vehicle for several months.

After all testimonies were complete, the victim gave a brief statement through a translator via Zoom — accompanying a written victim-impact statement given to the court.

He said the last thing he remembered was leaving work around 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 and getting on his bike to head home. The next thing he knew, he was waking up around Christmas in a hospital bed.

Ward also spoke, offering a statement to the court and a separate statement to the victim and witnesses — who were watching on a live video feed.

“I regret my actions, and I wish that I had done everything differently,” Ward said.

He added he was heartbroken learning the victim had two children and “overwhelmed with remorse and sadness.”

Brown then issued the sentence with a brief statement of his own. He said, at best, Ward’s actions leading up to the crash were “grossly negligent,” adding his decision to leave the scene after the crash was the worst part of the incident.

The judge said had Ward stopped, gotten out of the vehicle, and looked around, he would have seen the debris field and possibly found the victim and rendered aid. At least, he said, emergency responders would have been able to begin care several hours before family found him.

“You had a duty to inquire,” Brown said.

He then said that Ward reporting a collision with a deer in Utah was a “deliberate” and “intentional” attempt to “mislead” and “misdirect” law enforcement.

“When we’re behind an automobile, we’re behind a deadly weapon,” Brown said, explaining the lesson behind the sentencing.

In addition to the prison sentence, Ward was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines and a $100 fee for DNA and fingerprint collection.

Brown also gave Pearson and the victim 90 days to file for restitution. According to Pearson, a bill from the first 10 days of medical care alone was around $600,000.

The prosecutor said that there is a possibility the hospital will pursue a civil case against Ward to collect payment.

Ward was then turned over to the custody of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for transport to state prison.