Ten months after college student Jody Watson died when her car collided head-on with a van on Brotherhood Bridge, the grand jury has indicted the van's driver and passenger on manslaughter charges.
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David B. Alex, now 23, and Stephanie L. Smathers, now 19, were charged with recklessly causing Watson's death on Aug. 31, 2005.
Watson, a 25-year-old University of Alaska Southeast student and employee, was driving a Dodge Neon inbound on Glacier Highway when an outbound Plymouth van veered into her lane on the two-lane bridge spanning the Mendenhall River.
Alex and Smathers allegedly "were involved in a physical altercation that resulted in (Watson's) death," Juneau Police Capt. Jerry Nankervis said Monday. Investigators believe the altercation was responsible for Alex, the driver, being distracted, leading to the van drifting into the oncoming lane.
Nankervis said he did not know if Smathers is accused of touching the steering wheel during the incident.
Watson, who came from Aberdeen, Wash., was a senior in the liberal arts program and was on track to graduate this spring. She had transferred to the Juneau campus from Ketchikan. She worked in the UAS bookstore.
At the time, Paul Epson, who also worked at the bookstore, said that on the day of the accident Watson had worked late to help get ready for the first day of school. He said it was typical of her character.
Diane Souron, Watson's mother, said Monday from Aberdeen, Wash., that she knows some people questioned the lack of charges in the case, but she said Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner and police Officer Matt Torok and Sgt. Paul Hatch worked to keep her informed on the investigation.
"I am very pleased with the diligence of the Juneau police and the district attorney's office," she said. "I have nothing but respect for what they've done."
Souron was one of 18 witnesses who testified before the grand jury Friday before the panel returned the indictment.
Gardner said his office asked for summonses to be issued for Alex and Smathers. Their cases were assigned to Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, but neither had been scheduled on her calendar as on Monday afternoon.
Police reported in March that the investigation had been turned over to the district attorney's office. Gardner, however, said work continued in preparing the case for the grand jury.
"I've been the prosecutor since the day of the accident, and it has remained under investigation," he said. He added that he couldn't discuss details.
The indictment shows five search warrants being issued in 2005 and six search warrants being issued in 2006, the last five issued recently.
Under Alaska law, manslaughter, a degree of homicide below second-degree murder, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Nankervis said the van driver was the same David Alex who was injured in a fatal accident on Douglas Island in June 1998, when he was 15. According to Empire reports at the time, he sustained a broken spine and a seriously injured foot. A 20-year-old cousin, Kyle Nashoanak, died before emergency crews arrived at the scene of the single-vehicle accident on Fish Creek Road.
Police later learned that Alex and Nashoanak were on the van's roof, "surfing," when the van skidded and struck a guardrail at about 5 a.m.
In that case, the driver, 15-year-old Marlow Littleboy, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and second-degree assault. Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks ordered him to serve 15 months in prison.
Nankervis, who was at the scene of the 1998 accident, said a different van was involved in the Brotherhood Bridge fatality.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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