More than a year after a young Chandler woman was struck and killed by an accused red-light runner, her grieving mother’s quest for justice will continue for at least another month as the case percolates through Chandler City Court.
Chandler prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges against William Epperlein after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to file the felony charge recommended by Chandler police and rejected a request for reconsideration from Jody Kieran, the mother of victim Pamela Hesselbacher.
But those decisions did not satisfy Kieran.
She is researching the law’s legislative history to see if Epperlein could be charged with causing death with a vehicle, a Class 4 felony.
Epperlein’s newly appointed defense attorney asked for a month’s continuance last week to study the case, with Epperlein’s next scheduled appearance on the misdemeanors set for Jan. 19.
The delay gives Kieran, who operates a Peoria bird rescue, more time to determine if Epperlein could be charged under a different provision of the same law, rather than the one cited by County Attorney William Montgomery.
Kieran’s daughter, Pamela Hesselbacher, 31, of Chandler, was struck and killed by a pickup truck driven by Epperlein on Nov. 12, 2016, while she was crossing the street with her 3-year-old son and year-old daughter. The boy suffered a broken arm, broken hips and lacerations while his sister initially was in a coma with a broken hand.
The accident left Hesselbacher’s husband Matt to raise them with help from his family.
Kiernan said the children are recovering physically but that their mother’s death has left them and their father emotionally scarred.
“This is the only way I can face my grandchildren, knowing that I have done everything possible for their mother,’’ Kieran said of her campaign for more serious charges. “Despite the fact my daughter was a grown woman with a family of her own, she never stopped being my baby.’’
She said some of the misdemeanors Epperlein are facing carry the same penalty as littering a freeway.
“I’m trying to get the County Attorney’s Office to do their job,’’ Kieran said. “This Class 3 misdemeanor is the same as trash. My daughter was not trash. This is unacceptable. This is just obscene.’’
Montgomery based his decision on a provision in the felony law that requires an offender’s license be revoked, not suspended.
Montgomery said it was not possible to obtain a felony conviction because Epperlein was driving on a suspended license – not a revoked license. He said the law does not allow for prosecution if the license is suspended for having no auto insurance.
“On Nov. 12, 2016, the suspect’s privilege was suspended for financial responsibility and not revoked. This distinction has legal significance since we will not be able to correct type of driver’s license status to prove guilt,’’ Montgomery wrote in rejecting Kieran’s request for reconsideration.
Kieran is hoping that Epperlein could be charged under another provision that requires a “valid driver’s license,’’ but she is having trouble getting a legal opinion on the matter.
Police said that Epperlein ran a red light and was driving on a suspended license, but that he also was not intoxicated and was not speeding. He did not flee the scene and merely waited until police arrived.
If Epperlein is convicted on the misdemeanors, he would face up to six months in jail on the driving with a suspended license charge. His driver’s license also could be suspended for 180 days on the causing a serious injury charge.
A guilty plea to the misdemeanors would make it difficult to file felony charges because previous court rulings bar defendants from facing double-jeopardy.
The penalties for a class 4 felony are much harsher, ranging from a minimum of 18 months in prison for a first offender to three years in prison for a repeat offender.
The tragic collision illustrated a disturbing trend in Arizona toward a rise in pedestrian deaths, with 198 pedestrians killed during 2016, compared with 153 the previous year.
In focusing on just one of those pedestrians, Kiernan wrote Montgomery, stating:
“Time and time again, the justice system has failed to make Mr. Epperlein fully accountable for his actions.”
– Reach Jim Walsh at 480-898-5639 or at email@example.com.