By Zachary Stieber
A black man who hit two women who were part of a protest group blocking a Seattle highway was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor.
Dawit Kelete, who was born in the African nation of Eritrea and is a U.S. citizen, was charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, both felonies, and reckless driving by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
Kelete faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The investigation, which is being handled by the Washington State Patrol and the FBI, is still ongoing. Additional charges may be added later, prosecutors said.
Full pictures of Kelete weren’t available because the judge asked media outlets not to show his face, citing a request from Kelete’s lawyer, John Henry Browne. Kelete is scheduled to be arraigned on July 22. He’s being held on $1.2 million bail.
A protest that was part of the Black Femme March, which is part of the Black Lives Matter movement, was illegally blocking I-5 in the early hours of July 4.
Law enforcement officers repeatedly shut off access to a portion of the highway between State Route 520 and I-90 because protesters were blocking it. Protesters blocked the road for 18 days straight leading up to the day of the fateful crash, according to the state patrol.
Police would place marked patrol cars at entrance ramps and prevent vehicles from entering.
Security footage from REI captured Kelete piloting his white Jaguar XJL the wrong way up an exit ramp. After reaching the end, he made a U-turn and began driving the correct direction on the interstate.
Protesters had angled vehicles across the roadway in an attempt to protect themselves if any vehicles approached them. They were standing and sitting deciding what to do next after performing a group dance, according to charging documents.
Video footage taken at the scene from nearby overpasses shows the Jaguar heading toward the group. The driver brakes as he skirts around the vehicles blocking the road, moving to the left of them, as the group scatters.
As some screamed, the car hit the two women, sending them up into the air before they struck the ground.
The car was moving “at freeway speeds,” the documents stated.
Kelete stopped several hundred yards from the scene. He drove further after witnesses shouted at him to exit the car, with one hitting the vehicle. A man who said he was providing security for the demonstrators caught up with Kelete and blocked the vehicle. Police arrived minutes later.
As Kelete was taken into custody, he asked: “Are they ok?”
Kelete passed a field sobriety test but told police that he struggles with an untreated addiction to opioids. Officers found a substance that appeared similar to crystal methamphetamine inside the car.
Kelete has a criminal history that includes a minor intoxicated in a public place and a peace and order violation. He had been in two collisions in the past, neither of which caused injuries.
Kelete said he is a cashier at Arco and a full-time student. He lives with his parents.
Kelete’s lawyer told the Associated Press that the crash was a “horrible, horrible accident” and was not intentional.
“There’s absolutely nothing political about this case whatsoever,” Browne said. “My client is in tears. He’s very remorseful. He feels tremendous guilt.”
The man’s father, Tekie Kelete, told KOMO News: “I know nothing, But I love my son. I love him. I am very sorry for the girl, her family. It’s very sad. Sorry for all, she don’t deserve that. She was in the street fighting for justice.”
One Dead, Another in Hospital
Summer Taylor, 24, one of the women struck, suffered “catastrophic injuries,” according to charging documents.
With her family by her side, Taylor, a Seattle resident, died at 6:32 p.m., about 17 hours after the crash.
She and Diaz Love, 32, of Portland, were rushed to Harborview Medical Center.
Love said on Facebook that she’ll be wheelchair-bound until she learns to walk again.
She directed supporters on Facebook to two separate fundraisers.
One, she said, was for her medical expenses; the other is to help the woman with rent, a down payment, and utilities.
Love said in one post that Taylor “was murdered.”
“If they thought this murder would make us back down, they are very wrong. Very wrong,” she wrote.
Taylor worked at an Urban Animal, which is a local veterinary clinic chain.
A coworker wrote in a message posted on the clinic’s social media pages that Taylor “was truly a one of a kind person,” describing her as “kind”, “brave”, and “hilarious.”