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Guilty plea over sons death brings little relief for family

The Santa Maria Times: Guilty plea over son’s death brings little relief for family

By Samantha Yale Scroggin / Staff Writer / sscroggin@santamariatimes.com | Posted: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 12:00 am | (28) Comments

Eilene Okerblom cries as she remembers her son, Eric, who was killed while riding his bicycle east of Santa Maria last summer.//Mark Brown/Staff

A woman who struck and killed a Santa Maria bicyclist last summer when she became distracted while driving has been sentenced to probation and community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Katelin Edwards, 20, entered her plea Friday in Superior Court in Santa Maria in connection with the death of Eric Okerblom, 19, her former classmate at St. Joseph High School.

Okerblom, a former National Merit Scholar who went on to major in molecular biology at UC Berkeley, was fatally injured as he rode his bicycle south on Telephone Road east of Santa Maria on July 25.

Edwards, who lives near the crash site, was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, 100 hours of community service — including speaking to young drivers about the dangers of driver inattention — and was ordered to pay restitution to the victim’s family, said Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig.

Edwards pleaded to the charge originally filed by District Attorney’s Office, and not a lesser charge, he said.

She apologized to the Okerblom family at Friday’s hearing, Ladinig said, but has refused to say what caused her distraction on the road on July 25.

That is among several factors that the victim’s parents find troubling.

Dr. Bob Okerblom and Eilene Okerblom say they want to know exactly what happened the day their son died, and they also do not feel Edwards has shown enough remorse for her crime.

“I don’t bear them malice,” said Bob Okerblom, a physician, about the Edwards family, “But I do want her to be accountable.

“There’s no good ending to a tragedy like this, but you can make it less meaningless by at least trying to be responsible.”

The Okerbloms say they want to know that Edwards understands the magnitude of the loss they have suffered, and that she is working to prevent others from being distracted drivers, which the California Highway Patrol found was the cause of the crash that killed Okerblom.

Judge Edward Bullard told Edwards in court that her inattention was dangerous, that it was clear her focus was diverted from the road for an extended period of time, “and she should have been paying better attention,” Ladinig said.

The prosecutor said he went out to the scene of the wreck and looked around before charges were filed.

“This was in no way, shape or form ... an unavoidable accident,” Ladinig added.

According to a crash report filed by a CHP officer, Edwards was driving south on Telephone Road at around 60 mph in an area with a 55 mph speed limit shortly before 7 p.m.

Edwards reportedly told a CHP officer that as she crested a hill, she saw a bicyclist about two feet left of the right road edge also riding southbound.

“When she first perceived the bicyclist, he was right in front of her,” the officer wrote in the report.

“She may have managed to remove her foot from the accelerator, but she did not have time to apply the brakes or turn the vehicle in any direction. The right front of her vehicle struck the bicyclist from the rear,” the officer continued.

The officer found Edwards had at least 550 feet of unobstructed visibility prior to hitting Okerblom, and the position of the sun was determined not to be a factor at the time of the crash. Okerblom was riding his bike legally.

Records indicate Edwards did not call 9-1-1 after the crash, he said.

Bob Okerblom said that shortly after the wreck, he went to the Edwards’ home and hugged Katelin, “and I told her she had to forgive herself.”

However, in the following weeks, Edwards made posts on social networking sites that the Okerbloms felt were insensitive, Bob said.

They wrote her a letter expressing their displeasure with her actions, Okerblom said. He described a letter of apology they received from Edwards as “stiff.”

Eilene Okerblom, formerly a hospice nurse who said she doesn’t know if she will be able emotionally to return to the work, said she and her husband asked Edwards to reveal the nature of the distraction that caused the wreck, to accept responsibility, to plead guilty to the charge and to embrace community service combating distracted driving.

“We would have hoped that she would dedicate her life to doing good things since she took this precious human life, rather than fighting against even doing anything minimal,” she said.

Edwards’s punishment doesn’t touch the enormity of taking Eric’s life, said Eilene, who believes there should be stricter consequences for inattentive driving.

The death of Eric, who has two older siblings, has encouraged the Okerbloms to advocate attentive driving.

The couple’s home is full of framed photos of their son and examples of his photography.

Talking about him brings a flow of tears for Eilene, but she does it anyway.

“He was a quiet leader,” his mother said proudly. “He was one of the most compassionate and mindful people I’ve ever known, and he was so talented. He had unlimited abilities.”

“We needed him in the world.”

The Edwards family and Edwards’s attorney, Catherine Swysen, could not be reached for comment Monday.