University Place man, 86, gets nine months in wrong-way crash

An 86-year-old University Place man who caused a wrong-way crash on Interstate 5 last year went to Pierce County Superior Court on Wednesday seeking a bit of leniency.

Judge Jerry Costello had none to give.

Costello rejected the recommended six-month jail term for Panos Palas, who had pleaded guilty to vehicular assault in the Nov. 11, 2014, crash. Instead, the judge sentenced him to nine months, the maximum available within the standard range.

The judge said Palas deserved the higher term because he apparently hadn’t learned his lesson from a 2012 DUI arrest in Lakewood.

Palas got a break in that case after city prosecutors agreed to reduce the charge to negligent driving if he completed a court-ordered program.

Palas did so, finishing up the requirements just a few months before he got behind the wheel after consuming alcohol, pulled onto I-5 near the Tacoma Dome and headed north in the southbound lanes.

His vehicle crashed head-on into a car carrying Sarah Myers, her husband, Robert, and their two kids. Sarah Myers suffered a badly broken leg from which she’s still trying to recover.

“I can’t get over that. I can’t get past that,” Costello said of Palas’ decision to drink and drive again. “I cannot show you leniency under these circumstances.”

Washington State Patrol troopers determined Palas’ blood-alcohol level was 0.12 at the time of the crash. The legal limit is 0.08 in Washington.

Costello’s decision pleased Sarah and Robert Myers, who asked the judge to give Palas the maximum. Both said they still flash back to the night of the wreck.

“He needs to learn. Other people need to learn,” Robert Myers, who works as a firefighter, told the judge. “It’s not about your age. It’s not about your status in life. It’s about the decisions you make.”

Sarah Myers, who walks with a noticeable limp, said she’s still trying to overcome not just her physical injuries, which included a broken femur, broken ribs and fractured vertebrate, but also the emotional toll the wreck took on her.

She said she’s never felt so helpless than when she was trapped in her demolished car, not knowing whether her two children, who’d been riding in in the backseat, were OK.

“I couldn’t comfort my babies,” she said.

Palas’ lawyers, Michael Stewart and Edmund Allen Jr., urged Costello to follow the recommended sentence of six months they’d negotiated with deputy prosecutor Tim Jones.

Palas has lived a productive life and is loved by his family and well-respected at his church and in the community, the defense attorneys said. They provided Costello with several letters vouching for Palas’ character.

Stewart pointed out that his client is in declining health and has agreed to never drive again.

“Every day in jail will be a tough day for him,” the attorney said.

Palas then addressed the court. He apologized to the Myers family and said he hopes one day Sarah Myers can forgive him.

“I am ashamed for what I have done,” Palas said. “I pray for Mrs. Myers every day and light a candle for her at my church.”

Costello went last.

“Mr. Palas tells me he’s ashamed for the pain that he’s caused. He should be,” the judge said. “It is this court’s judgment that the maximum sentence is appropriate and just, and that’s what I’m going to order.”