Photo by Wheeler County Sheriff’s Office
The May crash in Wheeler County that claimed three lives was criminal, Sheriff Chris Humphreys and District Attorney Gretchen Ladd stated, in spite of what other law enforcement agencies found.
And Lisa Niehaus, 50, of Condon, will do 23 months in state prison for the crimes.
Niehaus pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to three counts of fourth-degree assault, two counts of third-degree assault and three counts of criminally negligent homicide. The judge sentenced her to 23 months in prison.
Ladd in a joint written statement with Humphreys called the case one of the most catastrophic in her career.
“The charging decision was a difficult one,” according to Ladd. “Even the Oregon State Police and prosecutors at the Department of Justice are divided on whether this was a traffic ticket for careless driving or criminally negligent homicide. We believe now, as then, that this was a crime. Criminally negligent homicide requires prosecutors to prove in court facts constituting something more than careless. Case law is fact driven and a matter of degrees of negligence is not easily identified even among the experts.”
About 45 members of the outlaw Gypsy Jokers Motorcycle Club on May 2 at 10:30 p.m. were driving on the John Day Highway, passing through Fossil to a motorcycle rally at Bear Hollow Park. Niehaus left the park rally five miles away and was returning home when she drove her passenger car across the centerline into the motorcyclists.
The crash resulted in the death of two riders at the scene, a third death weeks later, and injuries to six riders that included broken legs and hips, as well as head injuries and lower leg amputations.
“The survivors and their families are having to adapt to the physical, mental and emotional injuries of this catastrophic life changing event,” Humphreys and Ladd stated.
“This crash scene was chaotic,” Humphreys and Ladd stated. “Lisa Niehaus was trapped in the car. First responders tried to render aid for victims. The responders expressed grave concern for the safety of Lisa Niehaus. Several statements by some riders indicated Lisa Niehaus’s safety was in question. First responders noted the scene was extremely volatile.”
Niehaus made two calls just after the crash. Noise interrupted the first, according to the statement, and during the second Niehaus told her friend she was in a crash and “being beaten.”
Law enforcement sought search warrants, and the court approved some but denied others, including a warrant for Niehaus’ blood and urine the day after the crash. Humphreys and Ladd said Niehaus was not in custody overnight, and without a drug recognition expert to confirm she was impaired when she crashed, a toxicology report alone is not sufficient to prove she was under the influence at the time.
Eyewitnesses and evidence show Niehaus steered across the center line into the oncoming lane. She had a dog on her lap, a cellphone within reach and marijuana in the car, according to Humphreys and Ladd. She claimed the motorcycle headlights blinded her and she closed her eyes. Evidence showed most of the headlamps on the bikes were on low beam.
Humphreys and Ladd reported several state agencies assisted in the case, and several considered the crash “merely an accident.”
Ladd’s office, then, “became the sole advocate for the victims in this horrific crash, though others may not have done the same.”
While the Oregon Constitution provides specific rights to crime victims, the law allows exemptions if a court finds the incident involves elements of organized crime. Ladd and Humphrey stated the court ruled this case was excepted from victim rights protection.
That angered some of the victims, family and friends in this case and prompted comments that cause concern for the safety of the district attorney and the victim assistant in Wheeler County.
Even so, Ladd and Humphrey stated that the crime victims’ compensation rights in the case were not suspended, and the district attorney’s office continues to ensure monetary compensation is available to victims and their families through the state’s Crime Victims Compensation Program.