Arcata drunk driver pleads guilty

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA — Robert Willard Bergeson III has pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and will be sentenced Feb. 22 for the drunken driving death last September in Arcata of local music engineer Alan Edward Gradwohl, who was 55.

The Humboldt State University student, 24, reversed himself and agreed on Jan. 11 to plead guilty to one count of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated without gross negligence.    

Sentencing can range from up to one year in county jail or from 16 months to three years in state prison.     

Superior Court Judge John T. Feeney agreed to Bergeson’s request to reverse his plea from not guilty to guilty on grounds that he had no prior criminal record and “certainly has expressed remorse for his actions.”

Bergeson's clean record prior to Gradwohl’s death gives Judge Feeney leeway  on the length of the sentence.

Two subsidiary charges related to drunken driving were dropped under the agreement of Deputy District Attorney Brent Kling and Bergeson’s lawyer, Public Defender Heidi Holmquist.

Bergeson was in court to change his plea and appeared visibly tearful and chastened during and after the hearing as he left the courthouse. He heard Kling read a detailed summary of the case against him.

The deputy district attorney affirmed previous investigative reports that Bergeson’s blood alcohol level tested at 0.16-0.17 percent, twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

According to the arrest report, Bergeson was traveling west with four passengers on 14th and H streets at about 7:15 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13. He came to a full stop at the intersection, according to witnesses quoted by Kling.

But when Bergeson turned south on H Street, he struck Gradwohl with his Honda van, which police located near the site of the deadly encounter near Wildberries Marketplace. They reported Bergeson was cooperative with law enforcement at the scene, where Gradwohl was found dead.

Alan Edward Gradwohl - photo by Bob Doran

Kling spelled out how the accident developed, saying Gradwohl had advanced about three feet into the cross walk at 14th and H when he was thrown up on the front of the Honda as it moved south on H.

According to the deputy district attorney, Gradwohl screamed “Stop! Stop! Stop!” as he pounded on the hood of the van. But the vehicle remained in motion another indeterminate number of feet. Gradwohl fell underneath the Honda and its right front wheel ran over him.

Arcata officers reported that Bergeson was visibly intoxicated at the scene with alcoholic breath, slurred speech and an unsteady gait. Reportedly the defendant had consumed three pints of beer earlier that Sunday and he and his four passengers were headed to The Alibi tavern when the fatal collision occurred.

One of the four passengers was quoted as saying that they were “being rowdy” in the van as Bergeson turned at the intersection, suggesting he may have been distracted as well as intoxicated.

Reportedly some or all of the passengers “screamed for him [Bergeson] to stop” even as Gradwohl cried out to him to halt at the same time.

A search of the van turned up a number of empty beer cans in the floor wells but one or more of the passengers told police that Bergeson was not drinking at the wheel “and he definitely stopped at the posted stop sign.”

In summary, the state concluded, Bergeson committed actions that “directly caused the death of Mr. Gradwohl,” whom friends described as an exceptionally well-liked and respected member of the local music community (Union, Sept. 13). He was the sound engineer for the Kingfoot Band and previously lived in Arcata from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s before returning to Humboldt about a year and a half before his death.

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