Olympia grandfather sentenced to five years in prison for running down man in Puyallup

On April 17, Joseph Schaffer, a 65-year-old grandfather from Olympia, was on his way home, making wrong turns and running late.

High on a cocktail of painkillers and anti-depressants, the retired pipefitter drove and argued on his cellphone as he reached an intersection in Puyallup and ran a red light.

His Lexus ES300 ran down 42-year-old Christopher Kerns and killed him.

For that, Schaffer will spend the next five years in prison. He was sentenced Friday in Pierce County Superior Court, a few weeks after he pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide.

Kerns’ family gathered for the solemn sentencing hearing. Schaffer, a stocky man with close-cropped black hair and glasses, sat next to Wayne Fricke, his defense attorney.

The outcome was never in doubt. The sentence, slightly below the standard range of six to eight years, reflected an agreement between the prosecution and the defense. Schaffer always intended to plead guilty, Fricke said.

Schaffer had explained his remorse in three handwritten letters: to the court, to Kerns’ parents and to Susan Merritt, Kerns’ fiancée. The last letter began with an apology.

“Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for what I have done to you,” Schaffer wrote.

Family members, given the chance to speak, asked for and received permission to show a short video created for Kerns’ memorial service. The lights of the courtroom dimmed. Images appeared. Music played: “Wild Horses,” by the Rolling Stones.

The pictures began with youth: Kerns as a baby, on a birthday long ago. His face changed to that of a smiling young boy, then a gawky teenager in football gear. Another image: Kerns clowning with a pair of parachute pants, then dapper in a tuxedo on prom night.

More years passed. The boy became a man in a sailor’s uniform; Kerns served in the Navy.

The music changed. The new song was Jeremy Camp: “There Will Be a Day.” A low voice in the courtroom hummed to the melody.

On the screen, Kerns aged, beefed up, filled out. He tended a backyard fire. He sipped coffee at the ski lodge on Snoqualmie Pass. He held a glass of beer and toasted the camera with a grin.

In the courtroom, his father, Michael Kerns, wiped his eyes and dropped his head. The video ended. No one spoke for a while. Judge Frank Cuthbertson broke the silence and asked family members if they wanted to speak.

They did. Merritt was first. She spoke of her fiancé — “my lover, my fighter, my future.” She looked at Schaffer.

“Mr. Schaffer, I forgive you,” she said.

Michael Kerns spoke quickly and quietly. He said Schaffer should get treatment for his addiction to prescription drugs. He said Schaffer should never drive again.

Cuthbertson asked the defendant if he had anything to say.

“I realize the horrible mistake that I made that day,” Schaffer said. “This video really took it home. I’m extremely sorry for what happened. If there was any way I could make it up I would. I know there’s no way. All I can do is ask for the family’s forgiveness.”

Cuthbertson asked a question. Schaffer had a lot of drugs in his system. He’d seen a psychiatrist earlier on the day of the incident. He’d been involved in another collision not long before the fatal incident.

“It should have been obvious that you were in no condition to drive,” the judge said. “You could have lost your life also. I’m just trying to understand what happened — and I don’t know if you can share that.”

For a long time, Schaffer said nothing. Finally, he spoke softly.

“It was a terrible mistake,” he said. “You take that kind of medication, you kind of lose track of what you’re taking.”

“Well,” Cuthbertson said. “I hope at some point I’ll understand it. Today I don’t.”