MISSOULA — Felony charges will not be filed against the woman who drove onto the sidewalk and hit and killed a Hellgate High School student last month on Mullan Road, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg announced Thursday.
Van Valkenburg, however, said the driver, Yoon Hee Cho, 38, likely will be charged by the City Attorney’s Office with a misdemeanor for careless driving that resulted in death. Chance Geery, 18, died shortly after the accident.
Cho’s lawyer, Paul Ryan, said she will “probably plead guilty” to the misdemeanor at her initial appearance because she does not want to “prolong the agony through lots of litigation.” Cho, an associate professor at the University of Montana, has never been in any kind of legal trouble and wants to accept responsibility right away, he said.
“Obviously, she is completely devastated by what she’s done, and she feels terrible about this whole thing,” Ryan said. “There was no alcohol, no drugs, she wasn’t speeding, she wasn’t texting. She was just inattentive for a split second, and obviously with a devastating result.”
Late Thursday, the initial appearance had not been scheduled, but Ryan anticipated it would take place early next week. The maximum penalty for careless driving resulting in death is six months in jail and a $5,000 fine, according to the county attorney; the maximum penalty for felony negligent homicide is 20 years in the state prison and a $50,000 fine.
Geery was walking hand-in-hand with his longtime girlfriend along Mullan Road late in the afternoon of April 1 when Cho’s car veered onto the sidewalk and struck him. Geery, a senior defensive lineman for the Hellgate football team, was pronounced dead at St. Patrick Hospital 20 minutes later; Gabby Rosier, his girlfriend, suffered minor shoulder pain.
Rosier’s grandmother, Connie Clark Foust, said Thursday her granddaughter also is suffering emotionally from the trauma. In an email to the Missoulian, she said the lack of felony charges are “a disgrace for all people of Missoula.”
“The charges brought forth are very disappointing, at least from my perspective, and there seems to be a lot of outrage within the community,” said Foust, of Nevada.
In a phone call, Foust said Rosier watched her boyfriend die, and the event has emotionally distressed the young woman. Investigators said the driver was “distracted,” although the source of distraction isn’t clear.
“What ... was she distracted by?” Foust said. “She was supposedly 3 feet up on the sidewalk when she hit him.”
Van Valkenburg said he and the lead detective in the case informed Geery’s parents and girlfriend on Wednesday of the outcome of the investigation. He said a lawyer from the City Attorney’s Office also met with the family.
“One of the most difficult jobs that the county attorney has is to tell the parents or loved ones of someone who has died in some tragic fashion that there is no way to prosecute someone in a way that they believe is just under the circumstances,” Van Valkenburg said.
He believes the family understood the burden of proof in this case would be too difficult to meet to charge the driver with negligent homicide, the primary felony offense possible in the fatal wreck. The state would be required to establish the driver was “acting in a grossly negligent manner” at the time of the crash, he said.
But the investigation showed the driver was not speeding, texting, or under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, Van Valkenburg said. In an interview, he said, the driver told a Missoula Police Department detective she may have been thinking of a relative at the time of the crash or dealing with her car window, but she was only speculating.
According to authorities, Cho had not received or sent texts, emails or calls around the time of the wreck, she ran to the victim right after the crash, and her phone was still in her purse inside the car when investigators arrived at the scene.
Rosier, who survived, said she has many opinions about the county attorney’s decision, but her lawyer has advised her to refrain from discussing them. In brief, she said, she isn’t pleased with the outcome, and she said civil charges are possible in the future.
“The thing is, is that the citizens of Montana really made up the laws, so it’s up to us to really learn from this and hopefully make this easier for future family members,” Rosier said.
Cho had wanted to talk with the family right away, but the investigation precluded her from doing so, Ryan said. She wrote letters of apology immediately after the accident, and Ryan said he forwarded them Thursday to the family.
“She wishes she could take it back. She can’t,” Ryan said.
The investigation and decision to decline to prosecute took more than one month, and Van Valkenburg said he understands some members of the public may believe it took too long. However, he said he wanted to analyze the case fully after a thorough investigation, speed studies and lab results.
“For all those reasons, this may have taken longer than the public might think it should take, but in the end, I think this is the most appropriate outcome,” Van Valkenburg said.
Cho is from South Korea and moved to the United States in 2010 and to Missoula in 2012, according to her lawyer, Ryan. Her lawyer believes she has an international driver’s license as well as a Montana license.
Van Valkenburg said he does not believe Cho’s license has been revoked. If she is convicted, he said, it’s possible the court could consider a recommendation that she be retested for her driver’s license.