Driver who hit Jade West owner sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison

(1:55 pm summary: Rodney James has been sentenced to the 30 months in prison that prosecutors recommended.)

(WSB photo added 2:02 pm – Rodney James foreground left, the Wong family – from left, Jason, Wah, Salina, Jimmy – background right)
We are in King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector‘s courtroom downtown, along with Jade West Cafe proprietor Wah Wong and his son Jason Wong (plus many relatives and supporters), for the sentencing of Rodney James, the drunk driver who pleaded guilty to vehicular assault in the crash that badly hurt the Wongs two months ago. (The restaurant north of Morgan Junction has been closed ever since, its future still up in the air.) Also here: Three TV crews and a photographer from the Seattle Times (WSB partner) – close to 50 people in all in the courtroom. We are told some family members will address the judge; we’ll publish developments as they happen, with a longer story (including video and photos) later.

1:10 PM: The hearing has begun. The recommended 2 1/2 years is described as an “exceptional sentence.”

(WSB photo added 2:05 pm – Jimmy Wong at left, James’ lawyer at right)
1:16 PM: Jimmy Wong, the eldest son from California, is about to speak, after senior deputy prosecutor Amy Freedheim finished explaining how heinous the case is. “No amount of apology that he says will undo any of the damage that has been done. Mr. James’ actions have ruined my family’s fortune, source of income, my father’s passion, having his own restaurant for 20 years, serving the West Seattle community, that passion’s been taken away from him.” And he is speaking emotionally of his brother, who lost a leg. “The only thing I have left are memories of my brother … dancing at my wedding.” Then, he speaks of the customers of Jade West, who considered it home: “They don’t have a home any more.”

1:22 PM: Salina Wong, Wah’s wife and Jason’s mother, is speaking now. She too is crying. And then, she is angry, and tells James not to repeat the mistake. (added 5:15 pm – video of her testimony)

1:26 PM: Jason Wong, in a wheelchair, is speaking now. “One day I will get over this – but my family won’t. My parents have worked so hard, to see everything crumble in one day.”

1:30 PM: The lawyer for Rodney James is speaking and says he chose to accept “complete responsibility” and “wishes that day had never happened.” She spoke for about four minutes; James is speaking now, saying “I am devastated by this loss and it has affected me a great deal … if I could do this all over again, I would not have gotten in my car on that night.”

1:35 PM: Now the judge is speaking. “But for the heroic act of Jason, his father might not be here today.” She says the court has received 113 letters of support for the Wongs and Jade West. “More letters than I have ever seen, combined, in my 11th year on the bench.” She says the letters express outrage, disbelief, disappointment in the legal system. She calls James’s behavior “outrageous.” She says that James has agreed to factors that make it possible for her to sentence him to more than the standard range of 13 to 17 months. “Some of the letters have asked me to sentence you to the maximum the law permits … that would be 10 years. Some asked for more … even life. The law simply does not allow for that.” (added 2:37 – part of that statement, on video – sorry about all the typing noise)

She says she is aware that the Wong family are “incredible members of our community … Jason had agreed with a degree in aeronautical engineering and was in the process of obtaining a masters in that field … when your car (James’s car) landed in their driveway.” She says that on Wah Wong’s behalf, a former owner of the Jade West even wrote a letter, and “took great pride in seeing how it had grown in reputation throughout the West Seattle community.” She says the letters have been “overwhelming.” And, “No amount of time” will bring back the way the Wongs were .. the way the Jade West was. “Our entire community grieves for your losses, currently and prospectively,” the judge says. She also says she got letters from James’s parents expressing “deep remorse over their son’s actions.” She says toxicology reports now show James’ blood-alcohol level was .19 – higher than the originally reported .16. “The court will sentence you to the original 30 months agreed to,” she says. He also will serve 18 months probation afterward, and a $1,700-plus financial obligation even before a restitution hearing to determine what else he will be ordered to pay. If he gets a driver license in the future, he will have to have a device that will keep his car from starting unless he has less than .02 blood alcohol. She told him a few minutes earlier that he should never drive a car again, and that “if we were in Europe” he would lose his license for life.

1:56 PM: The hearing is concluded. We will see if the Wongs plan to speak to reporters outside the courtroom; we spoke with Jimmy Wong before the hearing, and he wasn’t sure if they would want to.

29 Replies to "Driver who hit Jade West owner sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison"

  • samson February 12, 2010 (1:13 pm)

    GUILTY *chanting*- he deserves it!

  • christopherboffoli February 12, 2010 (1:52 pm)

    Excellent live-blog coverage. No other news source seems to have anything up yet. Glad to read it here while it is happening.

    • WSB February 12, 2010 (1:54 pm)

      Really? KOMO reporter is sitting here with a laptop. Wonder what she’s been doing, then.

  • 4thGenWestSide February 12, 2010 (2:19 pm)

    Outstanding Coverage! Also, the Seattle Times just gave you the deserved credit for breaking the killing of the sea lions story. We are so lucky to have you guys.

  • christopherboffoli February 12, 2010 (2:31 pm)

    KOMO finally got a report up at 2:18pm. I guess it is just another case of WSB reporting the news as it happens and others reporting it when it is history.

  • brandon February 12, 2010 (2:34 pm)

    I don’t see KOMO mocking WSB when they report a story first…

    • WSB February 12, 2010 (2:36 pm)

      Different organizations make their choices of what they do first. She may have been out on Twitter, as I was, as Casey McNerthney of the P-I was. Also I should add re: media options for watching later, Channel 13 also had someone here.

  • elliott February 12, 2010 (2:40 pm)

    Now that Mr. James has had his day in court, my attention turns to the totem pole thief. When is he going to be arraigned?

    • WSB February 12, 2010 (2:41 pm)

      Totem pole charges not filed yet unless it’s happened today and I haven’t gotten word yet.

  • coffee February 12, 2010 (3:04 pm)

    I sure hope that they can get their restaurant opened up again! Its so close to work for us! And lesson to all who drink and drive…..

  • cjboffoli February 12, 2010 (3:11 pm)

    brandon: No intention of mocking. I just find it remarkable and appreciate it when a huge, well-capitalized news organization with tons of resources can be out-performed by a single editor with a laptop. Old media does plenty to mock a movement to micro-local coverage. But situations like this speak to the benefits of a light and agile reporting system.

  • Mookie February 12, 2010 (3:20 pm)

    “Some of the letters have asked me to sentence you to the maximum the law permits … that would be 10 years…”

    If the laws allowed 10 years as the maximum, with standard range being 13 to 17 months, how is 2-1/2 years so “exceptional”? Doubling the standard still doesn’t seem like enough to me.

    I got choked up while reading WSB’s coverage, and the WSB live twitter stream. Proud of how the community responded to make a showing of support that was something the judge hadn’t seen in her 11 years on the bench.

    Thank you WSB for such comprehensive and moving coverage.

  • grr February 12, 2010 (3:23 pm)

    Inexcuseable lack of justice. If the law allowed 10 years, why the *$)@$$% didn’t he get all 10. FOUR TIME repeat DUI offended. At a MINIMUM, he should have gotten 5.

    This fight needs to be taken to Olympia. DUI Laws are simply NOT strong enough.

  • Kat February 12, 2010 (3:32 pm)

    Aside from that flaccid jail term, how is it even an “if” that this person should ever get a driver’s license again? We shouldn’t give people the opportunity to be “repeat offenders” to begin with!

  • KBear February 12, 2010 (3:41 pm)

    Agreed. When someone does something like this, they should NEVER DRIVE AGAIN.

  • grr February 12, 2010 (3:56 pm)

    one can only hope for some additional ‘justice’ from ‘inside’ over the next 2.5 years.

  • onceachef February 12, 2010 (4:04 pm)

    Who pays for the “device” they might install…him or the taxpayers? Just curious.

  • Kravitz February 12, 2010 (4:07 pm)

    This breaks my heart. I was a victim of a violent mugging, and my attacker was sentenced to 2 1/2 years for his actions. This man has completely changed the lives of a family and gets the same sentence? How is this just? Wah Wong’s son has lost a leg; this is his life sentence. And Mr. Wong is still recovering, and could be at risk for losing his business due to this man’s actions. I can’t comprehend how any judge could make this decision. She should be ashamed of herself. The judicial system has failed the Wong family, and that is devasting to them and all of the West Seattle friends and neighbors of the Jade West.

  • KBear February 12, 2010 (4:20 pm)

    Don’t blame the judge. She followed the plea agreement. The plea agreement spared the taxpayers the expense of a trial and spared the Wong family from having to suffer through a trial. Maybe she could have added a few more months, but if judges routinely disregarded plea bargains, our legal system would be a lot slower and more expensive. If you want to blame someone for the relatively light punishment, blame the voters. We elect the people who make our laws and who set the punishments and sentencing guidelines.

  • JadeWestFan February 12, 2010 (4:27 pm)

    In other countries, the “just” punishment would’ve been to cut off this guy’s driving leg and take away his license forever. This is the reason why people aren’t scared of driving drunk because they know they’ll have it cushy in the end; regardless of whose leg got amputated or whose business got lost.

    This really bums me out because he got off easy. Wah should sue this guy’s pants off!!!

  • grr February 12, 2010 (4:34 pm)

    jwf…from what I understand, this ass has nothing to sue for. Rented apartment. Not much of a job. Minimal car insurance.

    KBear…I disagree. The judge was WELL within her right to add as much time as she wanted, especially in this case..She wouldn’t have gotten any argument from the prosecutor, for sure. I actually think they were HOPING she’d bump up the sentence.

    And, I agree..we as voters are to blame for electing wimpy representative who refuse to beef up DUI laws and sentencing guidelines. They’re too busy pissing away $100mil on monorails and $233 mil so far on STUDIES regarding the 520 bridge replacement.

  • old timer February 12, 2010 (4:51 pm)

    Today, after the sentencing, I spoke in the courtroom hallway with a police officer connected to the case. I remarked that even though I thought the defendant got off with a light sentence,it seemed that, if it were not for the fact that so much community support was evidenced, James would have gotten an even lighter sentence.
    The officer agreed, and commented that the Judge was severely limited as to how much latitude she could exercise in the length of the sentencing.
    I think The State treats the punishment of all those convicted of a particular crime as equal, even though in reality, because of differing victim impact, this is very much not true.
    So, the future answers must come from the legislature, allowing severe punishments for crimes of this type.
    Thanks again WSB.
    Without you, all this would have passed me by.

  • Leroniusmonkfish February 12, 2010 (7:01 pm)

    Well said Old Timer.

  • grr February 12, 2010 (8:00 pm)

    +1 to what Old Timer said. At least we can take SOME solice knowing this pos won’t be on our streets for 2.5 years. And maybe there will be enough press coverage to help get some action going. The comments on the KOMO website article are equally in line with the thoughts here.

    God Speed and fast healing to Wah and Jason and their family.

  • Ms Evelyn February 12, 2010 (8:04 pm)

    I was there today at the sentencing hearing. I saw our WSBlog gal TR (and very proudly so!). I had never met this family before but felt so strongly that I needed to show my support to a family who has had so much bad happen to them. I hoped that the support of over 100 letters and a courtroom totally packed with supporters would give this repeat offender a fair sentence. It failed!! I am embarrassed that our system failed this all American family. They will live with this crime far longer than the criminal will live…

  • Claire j February 13, 2010 (5:12 am)

    I remember walking by the restaurant often in the evening. Through the window this old man cooking in front of his customers just as if it were his own home kitchen. On cold days and wet one’s people sitting around while he cooked. I never went in to sample the love that must have gone into his food and now I wish I had.

  • Daniel Cogan February 13, 2010 (12:27 pm)

    The drunk should have recieved(at the least)five years in the State Pen. At the most, life.

  • JWF February 13, 2010 (3:14 pm)

    This might sound… bad, but I thought about Wah’s predicament and one of the best ways to start the road to recovery is to forgive the ass. The burden of hate and resentment extracts its toll in form of stagnation and negative orbit.

    Anyway, I know it’s herculean and sounds too… holistic — but maybe it’s the shortest path to getting on with life. I also know it’s easier said than done. And I agree campaigning to change the law is also good. Just a thought…

  • grr February 13, 2010 (11:08 pm)

    sorry, JWF…couldn’t disagree with you more. You forgive a child for making a mistake. You do NOT forgive a 50 year old multiple repeat DUI offender who wipes out your life savings, your business, your retirement, and your sons’ mobility, because they chose not to call a cab. You PUNISH that person, as much as you possibly can.

    all worthwhile karma and good engery thoughts aside…forgiveness doesn’t fit into THIS situation.

    My guess is that his lawyers ‘agreed’ to get him into some kind of AA/rehab thing. Big f’n deal. Should done that after his FIRST DUI, not after his FOURTH.

    I’m still hoping for a little ‘extra’ justice while he’s behind bars. That’s MY kind of karma.

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