Off-road driver gets prison in death of West Newton woman
A Dawson man told a Fayette County judge on Wednesday that his memories of a booze-fueled, off-road accident in 2013 that killed a 20-year-old West Newton woman led him to sell the vehicle after the crash.
But Judge Nancy Vernon questioned whether those same memories of Katelin Williams' death had any other impact on Ryan Keith Stricklin, 31. Vernon said photographs taken during the July Fourth holiday weekend at Westco Highlands, a private 4-by-4 club near Latrobe, depict Stricklin drinking beer next to his 1999 Jeep Cherokee.
“This is very dangerous, reckless behavior that you engaged in, lethally dangerous, that cost someone their life,” Vernon said, just before sentencing Stricklin to 18 to 24 months in state prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“What makes it worse is these photographs show you, again, off-roading in a vehicle, with young females, holding a beer, and drinking,” Vernon said. “What have you learned from this incident? You are engaging in the same behavior that you did on that night.”
Williams was one of three passengers who were riding in the cargo area of a Can-Am Commander 800R off-road utility vehicle operated by Stricklin at 1:55 a.m. Feb. 24, 2013, in a wooded area near New Hill Road in Jefferson Township in Fayette County, said Trooper Matthew Gavrish in an affidavit of probable cause.
As the vehicle went up a steep hill, its wheels lifted off the ground, causing it to “stand almost straight up and down on its back wheels.” Williams was tossed from the vehicle and struck her head on an unknown object, Gavrish said.
Stricklin testified he consumed at least eight beers in the hours leading up to the accident. Police said he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.109 percent at the time.
Stricklin's fiancée, Christine Walczak, testified during the hearing that she was in the vehicle's front passenger seat, but she was not thrown because she wore a seat belt. She testified Williams complained of ankle and back pain but refused offers to be taken for medical help because she had no health insurance.
The group stayed at the site for as long as 45 minutes before Williams, Walczak and another man drove to Stricklin's Banning Road residence, Walczak testified. Stricklin stayed behind with the off-road vehicle, she said.
It wasn't until near the end of the 30-minute drive that Williams became unresponsive, she said.
Williams was taken by ambulance to Mon Valley Hospital in Carroll, where police said she was pronounced dead at 4:24 a.m., less than three hours after the accident.
Through tears, Stricklin apologized, saying he “never meant for this to happen.”
“I just wish I could take it back,” Stricklin said. “I'm so sorry.”
Stricklin described off-roading as his “life and breath.” He said he participates in the sport “every chance I get,” but testified he sold the utility vehicle because of “the accident, the memories and everything.”
Had he known the severity of Williams' injuries, Stricklin said, he or others who had not been drinking would have taken her to a hospital.
In a victim-impact statement, one of Williams' sisters, Rachel Williams of Smithton, questioned whether her sibling would still be alive had help been sought immediately. She blamed her younger sister's death on “poor decision-making and drinking.”
“We lost a daughter, sister and friend,” she said, on behalf of her family. “We lost a huge part of our heart and soul.”
Katelin Williams' mother, Lisa Williams of Smithton, said she has forgiven Stricklin but noted “there are consequences for actions.”
Stricklin was sentenced after having entered a general plea in June to the involuntary manslaughter charge. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a charge of reckless endangerment, but they left sentencing to Vernon's discretion.
Vernon said she based Stricklin's sentence, in part, on his failure to seek immediate help for Williams, and the fact he was “still drinking and off-roading” after the fatal accident.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.