Mexican citizen sentenced to 12 years for drunk driving, killing Salem couple

Article author: 
Whitney Woodworth
Article date: 
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Article category: 
Article Body: 

A Hubbard man was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison Wednesday for hitting and killing a Salem couple while driving drunk.

About two dozen of the victims' friends and family members filled the courtroom during the sentencing of Eduardo De La Lima-Vargas.

The case proved to be contentious due to the defendant's immigration status. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, De La Lima-Vargas is a citizen of Mexico residing illegally in the United States.

De La Lima-Vargas, 40, of Hubbard, was driving his truck pulling an occupied horse trailer on Mission Street near Interstate 5 on Aug. 19 when he ran a red light and hit a motorcycle carrying Logan Wilson, 34, and Jessica Wilson, 32.

De La Lima-Vargas was arrested on two counts of first-degree manslaughter, DUI, reckless driving and two counts of reckless endangerment following the deadly crash.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree manslaughter and DUI Wednesday. Marion County Judge David Leith sentenced him to 12 years and six months in prison.

Due to the manslaughter being a Measure 11 offense, De La Lima-Vargas will not be eligible for early release or alternative programs. He faces deportation upon his release.

Backed by The Remembrance Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that raises awareness for people killed by undocumented immigrants, the victims' friends and family members wore shirts picturing the Wilsons' smiling faces below the phrase "killed by an illegal alien in a drunk driving crash on 8-19-2018."

They gathered outside the courthouse beforehand holding "stolen lives quilt" banners depicting those killed in Oregon. Members of the organization Oregon Women for Trump and congressional candidate Joey Nations were also in attendance.

They expressed anger over Oregon's leniency toward undocumented immigrants.

"I didn't think justice was served at all," said Debbie Stroud, grandmother to the Wilsons' children.

She said her grandchildren will never forget the day of the crash.

The Wilsons had a blended family from their previous marriages with children ranging in ages 11 to 15. They lived on the outskirts of Salem and enjoyed camping, the outdoors and hosting barbecues. Logan worked as a truck driver, and Jessica worked with children.

"They didn't have a bad bone in their bodies," Logan's mother Rochelle Coburn said.

De La Lima-Vargas' family filled the back row of the courtroom. Defense attorney Randall Vogt said De La Lima-Vargas immigrated to the United States as a teen without education or job skills. He became a construction worker, married and had three children.

Witnesses describe swerving truck

The night of the crash, responding officers described Vargas as smelling strongly of alcohol and swaying on his feet while standing. He failed a field sobriety test and his blood-alcohol content was at 0.10% two hours after the crash.

Several witnesses reported seeing him swerving and driving recklessly, according to court records.

Two hours before the crash, he was involved in a property damage incident. After one witness called police and told him not to leave, De La Lima-Vargas allegedly threatened to shoot the witness and drove away.

He made it to Mission Street, where he crashed into the motorcycle. 

The force of the collision threw both riders from the motorcycle and lodged it under the truck, causing both vehicles to catch fire.

Responders extinguished the fire and rescued the horse from the trailer.

Prosecutors stressed that after the crash, De La Lima-Vargas did not ask about the condition of the people he hit.

"He did, however, express concern for his horse, which had been in the horse trailer at the time of both of the crashes," former Marion County prosecutor Lori Evans said in a motion.

De La Lima-Vargas told investigators his wife was concerned about his driving the night of the crash. She offered to come and get him, but he declined because he did not know where he was.

Following the crash, prosecutors said the public was at risk of physical injury if De La Lima-Vargas was released. They asked that he be held without bail.

"The defendant had many opportunities to avoid this crash entirely but made a series of decisions that resulted in this crash and the death of two individuals," Evans said.

Leith ordered that De La Lima-Vargas be held without bail until a hearing scheduled for Sept. 5.

But during the hearing, Leith set bail at $500,000, finding that De La Lima-Vargas was charged with bailable offenses.

Previous coverage: ICE detains man charged with manslaughter of Salem couple, DUI

Case draws national attention

ICE agents, who had issued an immigration detainer with the jail, took De La Lima-Vargas into custody after he posted $50,000 security on Sept. 6.

Detainers serve as a legally authorized request, upon which a law enforcement agency may rely, to continue to maintain custody for up to 48 hours so that ICE may assume custody for deportation.

"The Marion County Jail does not honor any aspect of an ICE detainer, absent a criminal arrest warrant issued by a magistrate judge," ICE officials said.

The issue of not honoring ICE detainers has become part of a contentious national debate over "sanctuary cities."

De La Lima-Vargas arrested made national headlines, with opponents of so-called sanctuary cities citing his case.

An article on the far-right news website Breitbart read:

"An illegal alien living in the sanctuary city of Marion County, Oregon, has been charged with manslaughter after he allegedly drove drunk and killed a young American couple in their early thirties ... Marion County, where the deadly crash occurred, is a sanctuary city that protects criminal illegal aliens from deportation."

Measure 105 post-mortem: Why did effort to strike down Oregon's sanctuary law fail?

The issue of Oregon's sanctuary status went before voters in November.

Measure 105, which sought to repeal Oregon's sanctuary state law that prevented law enforcement from detaining people who are in the country illegally but have not broken other laws, was resoundingly defeated.

After ICE agents detained De La Lima-Vargas, agency officials said he was a threat to public safety.

“ICE’s mission is to protect public safety by upholding the immigration laws of the country," ICE officials said in a statement.

They added that the agency was not associated with the criminal proceedings in Marion County and would transfer De La Lima-Vargas back into local custody if prosecutors filed the appropriate motion.

In a matter of hours, prosecutors filed a motion with the Marion County court to reconsider holding him without bail in order to prevent his removal from the United States so he can face prosecution for his alleged crimes here before being deported to Mexico.

Prosecutor Katie Suver said they were advised that De La Limas-Vargas could be removed from the country. Law enforcement would have no way of ensuring his attendance at future court hearings if he was deported.

"At best, the defendant would remain in 'warrant' status and the case would never be tried," Suver said.

Victims' family unhappy with sentence

Leith ruled in the prosecutors' favor, and De La Lima-Vargas was transferred from an ICE detention facility in The Dalles back to the Marion County Jail.

Family members of the victims said the fact that De La Lima-Vargas would be housed and fed by the government and allowed to see his family while incarcerated felt like a "slap in the face."

When the judge talked about De La Lima-Vargas' constitutional rights, they expressed dismay that, as an undocumented immigrant, he was even allowed constitutional rights in the first place.

Logan's sister Mariah Turnidge called De La Lima-Vargas an "incredibly selfish, immoral person." She said he could've called a cab or slept in his vehicle the night of the crash.

"Instead, he used it as a murder weapon," she said.

The family asked for a longer sentence and cited De La Lima-Vargas' previous DUI arrest, which was diverted.

Through tears, De La Lima-Vargas said he has been praying for his victims.

"I would like to ask for forgiveness from the family," he said through an interpreter.

Vogt said De La Lima-Vargas had no previous criminal history and was not dangerous.

Before Leith delivered his sentence, he said he did not agree with Vogt.

"I disagree with the assertion that he is not a dangerous person," Leith said.

De La Lima-Vargas's actions the night of the crash show that he repeatedly endangered other people, Leith said.

He said no sentence could undo those actions leading to the tragic deaths of Logan and Jessica Wilson.

"It won't be made better," he said. "It can't be fixed."