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Bend woman’s guilty-plea offer in triple-fatal Hwy. 26 crash still opposed by DA; new status hearing set for Dec. 11

Audrey Cooper McHugh appeared on video from Jefferson County Jail for hearing last fall before Circuit Judge Daina Vitolins
Jefferson County Circuit Court
Audrey Cooper McHugh appeared on video from Jefferson County Jail for hearing last fall before Circuit Judge Daina Vitolins

MADRAS, Ore. (KTVZ) – A Bend woman’s standing offer to plead guilty to lesser charges in a head-on DUII crash on Highway 26 that killed three members of a Warm Springs family nearly a year ago apparently is still opposed by prosecutors, so Monday's scheduled plea/sentencing hearing turned out to be neither.

Instead, the judge in the case set another hearing for Dec. 11, to check where things stand.

“We’ve had ongoing settlement discussions and conferences,” Jefferson County Circuit Judge Daina Vitolins said as the brief hearing began, nearly an hour late, with Audrey Cooper McHugh, 30, appearing by video from the Jefferson County Jail.

“Based on where we are in this case, I would propose we set this for another status hearing in about 30 days,” Vitolins said, to the agreement of District Attorney Steve Leriche and McHugh’s attorney, Erick Ward.

Ward later told NewsChannel 21 that "settlement discussions are continuing," while Leriche said the discussion in chambers was just the prosecution and defense "refining our positions and further negotiating. Nothing is resolved."

The next hearing -- termed a “status check,” not a resolution of the case, is set for Monday, Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and could last about two hours.

Leriche first quickly checked with family members in the courtroom to see if that date and time was acceptable before giving his concurrence.

Vitolins had scheduled Monday's hearing earlier this month, indicating she could accept a plea and impose a sentence upon McHugh. But Leriche said later he expects the case to proceed to trial.

McHugh was indicated and arrested in early March in the Nov. 16, 2022 crash.

State Police said McHugh was passing several vehicles in the fog that evening when her pickup truck collided with an oncoming car driven by Saralee Spino-McCormick, 29, of Warm Springs, who was fatally injured, along with Jessica Johnson, 15, and her 13-year-old brother. The woman was the teens’ aunt.

All three were Warm Springs tribal members, OSP said. McHugh also was seriously injured in the crash.

A Jefferson County grand jury indicted McHugh on three counts of first-degree manslaughter and three counts of second-degree manslaughter, Class A and B felonies, and a misdemeanor DUII count.

In her plea petition, filed by defense attorney Erick Ward, McHugh agreed to plead guilty to the three second-degree manslaughter charges and noted that the maximum prison sentence would be 30 years and a $750,000 fine, a lesser penalty than first-degree manslaughter convictions could bring.

McHugh admitted in the petition that “I did unlawfully and recklessly cause the deaths” of the three named crash victims. But the petition also acknowledged: “The parties have not agreed upon a joint recommendation” to the judge.

Leriche told NewsChannel 21 that Ward filed McHugh’s plea petition “unilaterally” and that “the state intends to go to trial on the original charges.” Asked why the judge set the Monday's proceeding fir a possible plea and sentencing, Leriche said, “The judge doesn’t know all the circumstances yet.”

Deputy DA Brentley Foster, who represented the state at the Oct. 9 hearing, said she understood it would be a time for the defense “to either accept a prior offer extended at a settlement conference or set a trial date. Instead, the defense presented a signed plea petition to plead guilty to three counts of manslaughter 2, which I knew was not our offer.”

Foster said she also knew the victims’ family would want to be present for the proceedings, and they were not in the courtroom, so the judge agreed to set the matter over to Oct. 30.

Defense attorney Ward said the judge “was ready to take the plea,” but that Leriche “was on a hunting trip,” with Foster appearing as “his stand-in.”

“The guilty plea is pending, and we expect to enter it on the 30th,” Ward said, adding that Vitolins “simply agreed to the state’s request to take the plea at another time.”

“My client holds herself accountable for what happened, and she’s ready to pay the price,” the attorney said, calling the filing an “open plea,” with “no joint recommendation on the sentence.”

Article Topic Follows: Crime And Courts

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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