Northwest NEWS

November 16, 1998

Front Page

Convicted firefighter speaks out

   by Andrew Walgamott
   Staff reporter

   George Moorhead doesn't deny the fact that his actions caused the deaths of three men. But now, facing three to four years in prison, he questions what good incarcerating him would serve the community.
   After learning Moorhead was willing to speak to the Woodinville Weekly, this reporter recently sat down with him. While his goal was to tell his side of the story, and mitigate damage to the fire service, he also expressed a range of emotions during the interview.
   He is clearly remorseful about the events of June 14, 1997 when four men going home came together in a way that isn't supposed to happen. He wishes he could turn back time.
   There is anger as well, anger at what he perceives as a "one-sided character assassination" of him by the media which largely reported the prosecutor's version of the accident, but not his side of the story.
   "My occupation was sensationalized. 'Woodinville firefighter,'" Moorhead says, referring to newspaper, radio and television stories.
   Also, there is hope for change. He is asking the city of Renton to improve the intersection where his truck ran into a car carrying Tien Thai, Huu Hoang and Phu Huynh, killing them all.
   Stories differ
   Moorhead, 31, is a well-built man with thinning hair. Born on Halloween, 1967, raised in Woodinville and a graduate of Woodinville High, he's been a firefighter with the Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District for the past 12 years.
   He is single, a partner in a real estate firm and is also extensively involved in the community.
   But his life changed just after midnight June 14. Then, Thai, Hoang and Huynh, fathers and former soldiers in the South Vietnamese army, were headed eastbound along 27th Ave. N.E. in Renton in a Toyota Corolla on their way home from work at a Redmond watersports manufacturer. Moorhead was at a going-away party for a friend that night. With duty the next morning, he left around midnight, headed north on Aberdeen Avenue.
   Moorhead's account of the next few moments of that night differs markedly from charging papers King County Prosecutor's filed in Superior Court.
   Charging papers portray Moorhead as some sort of speed demon, saying he "sped" away from the party, passing by homes along Aberdeen at a "high rate of speed." Residents estimated he was going 50 or 60 mph, and said he blew through the intersection of Aberdeen and 24th Ave. N.E. just before the accident.
   Charging papers say he collided with the victim's car at 35 mph, decapitating one man. Papers also said he had been driving without his headlights on.
   But Moorhead says he was unfamiliar with the streets in the area, and stopped in the middle of 24th, trying to figure out if this was the particular street he'd been told to turn left on. Continuing on, he went down a slight dip then up a steep incline towards 27th at about 30 to 35 mph. If he hadn't hit the other car, he would've found himself on a street without an outlet.
   Instead, there was an accident. Moorhead called 911 and began administering aid.
   Later, he was arrested and booked for vehicular homicide.
   Investigation takes months
   It took 10 months before Moorhead was charged. A King County Prosecutor's Office spokesman told the Weekly it wasn't unusual for charges to take so long for auto-related crimes.
   "A little more time is necessary for investigation, accident recreation and technical work needed to determine whether the cars were in working order" said Dan Donohoe last March.
   Not considered a flight risk due to his community ties, Moorhead was allowed to remain free on bail. He continued to work at a fire station near Cottage Lake, though he had regular contact with his superiors.
   "I'm sure this has to be a significant burden on him, but there's nothing that I've noticed that affected his job performance," said Woodinville Fire Chief Steve Smith.
   Moorhead waited seven more months before being brought to trial last month. He was convicted of driving with disregard for others, one of three categories of vehicular homicide.
   The other two categories are driving under the influence and driving in a reckless manner.
   Much was made of the former. Charging papers said Moorhead had a blood-alcohol level of .07 an hour after the crash. Most media accounts of the accident or trial mentioned this, including the Weekly. But alcohol was not a factor for the jury to consider, according to presiding Judge Leroy McCullough's bailiff, Donne Young.
   The jury instead focused on whether he was driving without regard for others, according to King County Prosecutor's Office spokesman Dan Donohoe.
   During the trial, the defense argued that skidmarks used to determine the speed of Moorhead's truck didn't match up with the marks his 1964 Jeep Willy pickup would've left-one axle is wider than the other. Moorhead adds that tests he paid for determined his lights had been on. Local residents later said they had no way of knowing how fast the vehicle they heard drive past their homes was going, he said.
   Jurors cried
   "We were relatively dumbfounded that I got a guilty verdict because we had proved using the state's witnesses, using the state's evidence, that I was not guilty of [driving with disregard of others]," Moorhead said.
   Moorhead's attorney, Joseph Schlosser, spoke with jurors after they found out from the judge what the punishment would be.
   "Fifteen or twenty minutes later, four or five of the jurors were still crying or had just finished," Schlosser said.
   "They (the jury) found he was negligent, but just barely to support conviction," he said. Schlosser says now some of those jurors are writing to the judge requesting leniency.
   Planting seeds of doubt, Moorhead muses, "You've got to wonder how guilty somebody is if you have a jury writing to the judge that the punishment that accompanies this crime is unsupported."
   Questions jail time
   In questioning incarceration, Moorhead points to his involvement in the community.
   "I am a decorated fireman...I do 20 to 30 hours of community service a week depending on whether it's Rotary International, dealing with different food drives like First Harvest or whatnot. Last year I got involved with Teen Northshore. I've been dealing with the homeless teen program. These are programs I work with on a daily basis in addition to being a partner in a real estate company. I work with bankruptcies and foreclosures and helping people to not lose their homes."
   The firefighter also teaches within the profession.
   "What does the community gain by taking me out?" he asks.
   "All you do is take away a member of society who contributes back to society," says Schlosser. "Incarcerating George Moorhead would be the fourth tragedy."
   But the Prosecutor's Office points to his actions.
   "He was also speeding and three people died as a result. The jury thoroughly examined the case," Donohoe said.
   But to Moorhead, this was an accident that could have happened to any law-abiding citizen.
   "Was I driving erratically, irrationally?" Moorhead asks. "Was I driving like a 'bat out of hell,' as the prosecutor put it? Was I acting in ways that were completely out of the norm? No."
   "Did I go through...a stop sign, and hit a vehicle that had a very tragic end? Yes, I did, and I don't deny that, and I can't take that back. And I wish I could. But there are other ways of righting a wrong other than going to prison," he said.
   On jail, he adds, "If I don't have a choice...I don't have a choice, and I'll get through it. Will I enter back into community service, helping people and whatnot? Yes, I will."
   Recognizing that Moorhead has to pay some penalty, Schlosser suggests electronic home detention instead of jail.
   Safe intersection?
   While others, including Chief Smith, are writing letters to Judge McCullough in support of him, Moorhead says he is writing to the City of Renton.
   He questions the safety of the intersection where the accident occurred, stating that on Aberdeen there were no advance warnings of a stop at 27th; due to the angles of both streets, 27th can't be seen from Aberdeen; just before 27th, headlights shine into a hill; the cant of the stop sign there is more than normal; and, the white stripe that accompanies the sign is invisible until you're nearly in 27th.
   "That intersection needs to be brought up to minimum standards," Moorhead says. Asked if that would've prevented the accident, he adds, "I can't say it would've prevented it, but it would've greatly helped."
   Karl Hamilton, city of Renton transportation manager, says "the fact is the site distance is more than adequate" for 25 MPH, the posted speed limit. He says there's been two accidents at the intersection in the past five years, and one was Moorhead's.
   Moorhead said he has also written to the victim's families, making sure their needs were met.
   Though a sentencing date has yet to be set, Donohoe said the Prosecutor's Office hasn't decided what yet to recommend, saying it would have to be looked at at the "highest levels of the office."
   If anything is clear, it's bad things happen to good people--every law-abiding citizen's worst nightmare. If anything else is clear, it's that justice awaits.
   Moorhead describes the past 17 months as the most trying time in his life. But he sees some solace in God's measure of him.
   "There's a statement that God only bestows upon you what you can handle. He must have a lot of faith in me," he said.