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Pickup driver in DUI fatality faces trial on murder charge

DUI-manslaughter is the usual charge. But a prosecutor says this defendant drove ''like a bat out of hell.''

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Amber Tanille Woolfolk]
Kevin Hasbrouck, 31, holds a framed photograph Friday of his father, Stephen Hasbrouck, a 56-year-old Pinellas County employee who was killed in a DUI-related crash while stopped at a red light Aug. 1.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Nobody accuses Raymond W. Bahling of climbing behind the wheel of his Dodge Ram on Aug. 1 with the intent to kill anyone.

But prosecutors say he barreled down Interstate 275, a drunken man driving a 2-ton missile every bit as dangerous as a loaded and cocked gun.

Bahling, 47, his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, hit a guardrail and tore off a tire. But that didn't stop him. He shot down an exit ramp at 22nd Avenue N at up to 100 mph, prosecutors say.

His truck hit a median, became airborne and landed on a Cadillac driven by Stephen Hasbrouck, who was stopped at a red light on 22nd Avenue.

The impact decapitated the 56-year-old Pinellas County employee on his way to a family dinner.

"No matter what, Ray Bahling was going to kill somebody that day," said Kevin Hasbrouck, 31, the St. Petersburg resident's son. "So to our way of thinking, he committed a murder."

And that's exactly how prosecutors charged Bahling, an unemployed construction worker now jailed on $250,000 bail and awaiting a May 8 trial. For just the third time in at least the last 22 years, Pinellas prosecutors charged a defendant with second-degree murder in a fatal, DUI-related crash.

Rarely are murder charges filed in such cases anywhere in Florida. In the vast majority of alcohol-related crashes that lead to a death, the charge is DUI-manslaughter.

If convicted of DUI-manslaughter, Bahling faces 10 to 15 years in prison. Second-degree murder pumps the sentence from 25 years to life.

Prosecutors insist the charge is appropriate in the most egregious cases of drunken driving.

"It wasn't like he was just driving home from a party, ran a red light and killed somebody," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

"He was driving like a bat out of hell. People moved away from him and tried to get him to stop. He crashed several times. But he keeps moving and moving and moving and the inevitable happened."

The victim's son said prosecutors were reluctant to file a murder charge but relented at the family's insistence. Bartlett said that isn't true.

In any event, the prosecutor's decision is applauded by those who combat drunken driving.

"This is no different than somebody loading a gun and pointing it," said Angel Schumaker, coordinator for the Pinellas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "If they hit and kill someone, then prosecutors are perfectly justified filing a murder charge."

But Bahling's attorneys say the charge is inappropriate. Even if he is convicted of murder, they question whether the charge will survive appellate review.

They point to the 1992 case of Thomas P. Duckett Jr., who was driving drunk when he crashed into the back of a church bus stopped in the emergency lane on Interstate 75 in Hillsborough, killing five. Though he was convicted of second-degree murder, an appeals court reversed the conviction, ruling he should have been convicted of DUI-manslaughter.

"If a person decided to get himself drunk and then drove into a group of people to see how many he could run over and kill, I can see murder in that scenario," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office represents Bahling.

"That's different than just having too much to drink and going out on the road."

Bahling offered to plead guilty to DUI-manslaughter without any guarantee of what his sentence would be. Prosecutors rejected the offer.

The St. Petersburg resident's record includes convictions for burglary, marijuana possession and unemployment compensation fraud.

"He's not trying to avoid responsibility for what he did," said Assistant Public Defender Craig Alldredge. "He feels terrible for what happened."

Intent to kill is not necessary for a conviction of second-degree murder. After all, given premeditation, prosecutors might charge first-degree murder.

To convict Bahling, prosecutors must show that he caused a death "by an act imminently dangerous to another, demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life," Alldredge said.

Prosecutors also must "prove that the act was done from ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent," he said.

"I don't know how they're going to prove evil intent and ill will from what was a highly intoxicated driver," said Alldredge.

Different juries will interpret those words in different ways. There are no hard-and-fast definitions to guide them.

Bartlett said that no one fact makes Bahling's case a murder rather than a manslaughter.

"It's a continued pattern of reckless conduct," he said. "I think it's certainly ill will, hatred, evil intent. Common sense tells you that if you drive like that, you're going to end up killing someone."

Bartlett said Bahling had several opportunities to stop, but didn't, which separates this case from most other DUI crashes.

"This guy was crazy, weaving in and out of traffic," he said. "It went far beyond just being reckless."

Victor Pellegrino, an attorney specializing in DUI defense, said the murder charge in a DUI case is rare, but nonetheless possible.

He said it's a tough conviction to make stick when a death is caused by a truck, not a gun.

"The facts just have to be real bad," he said. "Looking at it objectively, which is hard for us defense attorneys, I can see the state's reasoning in going after the charge. If I were Bernie McCabe, I'd go for it.

"But the facts have to be so egregious, no reasonable person would put themselves in that position."

The last time Pinellas prosecutors charged a DUI-fatality case as a second-degree murder was in 1986, when Richard T. Hayes was charged with killing six people on the Madeira Beach Causeway.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Several years before that, another DUI case was charged as a murder. But a jury returned a DUI-manslaughter verdict.

"There's no charge of 'gunning under the influence' if you're drinking with a gun. It makes no difference. Murder is murder," said Kevin Hasbrouck.

But Avie Hensley, Bahling's friend, said, "Ray Bahling is not a murderer. He cried when he learned he took somebody's life."

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