A Reluctant Informer and the Hardest Hit - BodyShop Business

A Reluctant Informer and the Hardest Hit

An Oregon body shop technician's keen eye and decades of repair experience played a vital role in the apprehension of a driver responsible for the hit-and-run death of a 12-year-old girl. But it was more than knowledge of the job. It was his first-hand knowledge of knowing what it was like to lose a child.

Metal technician Clint Arndt, a four-year employee of Wentworth Buick’s body shop in Eugene, Ore., drives a Toyota pickup – complete with 162,000 miles on it. “It runs like a clock,” he says. And like clockwork, Arndt drives his truck to work every morning.

The morning of June 12 was no exception. When he arrived at the shop at 6:30 a.m. to begin his 10-hour shift, it seemed like any other morning. The sky was clear, and it looked like a beautiful, sunny day was in store.

But it wasn’t long before the day presented Arndt with a grave situation – so grave that his decision to go with his instincts would ultimately help to send one man to prison: Arndt would discover that a vehicle brought to Wentworth Buick was the same vehicle involved in a local hit-and-run, in which a 12-year-old girl had been killed.

But it wasn’t just Arndt’s experience that broke this case wide open. It was also his conscience. He had his suspicions when he first saw the vehicle in question, but his bravery to come forward with what he knew accomplished two important things. It demonstrated to people involved in the case and to residents of the town that technicians are educated, honest and knowledgeable – unlike the stereotype that’s plagued collision industry professionals for years. More importantly, it answered the question that plagued a grieving family: Who killed our child?

Mount Hood Beverage Co. is a distributor of beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks. It has about a half-dozen locations in Oregon and boasts a total of 380 employees. On the morning of June 12, Arndt learned that one of those employees, 26-year-old Lee Russell Stubbs, a Mount Hood driver, had been involved in an accident the previous Friday night, claiming he hit a deer while driving one of the beverage company’s vans, a Chevy Astro van with a big picture of two Corona Beer bottles on the side.

A Mount Hood maintenance man brought the damaged van to the Wentworth Buick body shop, and Arndt was drafted for the job. “The person dropping the van off told me it had been hit by a deer,” says Arndt. “Stubbs had told him it had been a deer hit.”

Deer hits aren’t anything new to Arndt. The Pleasant Hill/Eugene area in Oregon is deer country, and the Wentworth Buick body shop generally sees about 10 to 15 deer-hit collisions a month. Mother Nature’s way of keeping cars in the shop.

But repairing deer hits isn’t a problem for Arndt – an experienced technician, with 32 years working professionally. His dad taught him the ropes, and by the time Arndt was 15, he was working on his own cars. So when this experienced tech took a look at the Mount Hood van’s damage, it took him all of about three seconds to figure out it wasn’t caused by a collision with a deer.

On a normal deer hit, a technician can expect to see a substantial quantity of deer fur and hair – and even some deer flesh – embedded into the damaged area. In this case, the fur should have been tightly stuck into the spot where the right front light assembly was damaged. But Arndt didn’t see this at all. “The fur was in there so loose, the wind would have blown it right out,” he says. “It looked like someone had placed [the fur] in there by hand.”

About one second after Arndt noticed something was amiss, he remembered a news story about a recent hit-and-run death of a 12-year-old Pleasant Hill girl.

Katie Lovelace, a lifelong resident of Pleasant Hill, would have been 13 on Oct. 1. Although she was very popular at school, she wasn’t full of herself or judgmental of others. She was the kind of girl who defended the younger kids on the bus who got picked on.

Katie was also a gifted athlete. The last time her dad, Kelly, remembers seeing her play softball, she struck out six batters in three innings and smacked two home runs. At basketball and softball, she was very talented. But when it came to soccer, she was a star, possessed with blinding speed and breakneck agility that enabled her to weave down the field faster than most fans could turn their heads to watch. Her feet were so nimble she could probably dance on wet cement and fail to leave even the slightest trace of a footprint. Because she was too good for the local leagues, she played on a team that traveled the West Coast, becoming one of the top 50 players on the coast in her age group. She dreamed of playing for the U.S. Women’s soccer team, a big dream for one so young. But when you watched her play, it didn’t seem so unattainable. “One of the things that was so much fun for us was to hear other parents brag about our kid,” says Kelly.

But there was more to her than sports. A parent’s dream, she was set to start driving the combine on the family farm last summer. “She knew she could make a lot of extra moolah doing that,” says her mother, Janet. “Because like a typical 12-year-old girl, she liked Old Navy and shopping.”

If that’s not enough, she was a straight-A student. If an assignment was due in two weeks, she would start it immediately and even do all the extra credit in order to get a 120 out of 100, instead of just 100. English was her favorite subject because she loved to read and write. While most kids were turned off by books they had to read for school, Katie relished them. She was a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, reading the first three installments, and had been anticipating the release of the fourth when her life was tragically cut short.

On Friday night, June 9, Katie and her family, including her older brother, Jim, and her older sister, Jennifer, attended a party at the Fowler’s, who lived about two houses down the road. The two families had been friends and neighbors for about 11 years, since the Lovelaces had bought a house on Mathews Road. The Fowler’s oldest daughter, Nicole had just graduated high school that night, and the celebration was for her.

Around 10 p.m., Katie, two of her friends and Jim started walking home from the party. It generally takes less than five minutes to walk from the Fowler’s to the Lovelace’s on Mathews Road, an isolated two-lane stretch that runs parallel to the much busier Route 58. Despite the isolation, it’s a road commonly used by bicyclists and pedestrians, so local drivers know they should be careful – especially since Mathews Road has no overhead lights and not much of a shoulder to speak of. Beyond the white fog line is about a foot of pavement, followed by a thin strip of loose stones and the ditch.

As a result, the four young people walked single-file on the right side of the road, forced to walk the fog line as if it were a balance beam. Katie took the lead, with Jim at the end. They hadn’t been walking two minutes – and were only 200 feet from home – when Katie spotted headlights approaching from behind and declared a car was coming.

As it passed the Fowler’s home, the vehicle honked twice to acknowledge the party, but it didn’t try to swerve around the four pedestrians. In fact, it appeared to lean terrifyingly close to the shoulder, its passenger side tires leaving no black space between the fog line and the pavement. Jim Lovelace remembers turning in time to feel the vehicle whip by him, a breeze whooshing off it as it blew by. He could still feel the breeze when he heard a loud bang up ahead – a sound he still hears every night in his dreams. Knowing something was terribly wrong, he raced back to the Fowler’s to get help, yelling that someone had been hit by a car. Behind him he saw Katie’s two friends running after him, but no sign of his little sister … the little sister he went to the movies with on his weekend visits home from college … the little sister who planned their big sister’s baby shower … the little sister who for some reason wasn’t running behind him. It was that moment he knew Katie had been hit.

Katie Lovelace had been struck by the vehicle hard enough to launch her 50 feet, separating her from her shoes. She was killed instantly, the result of a skull fracture.

The driver never stopped.

This was the news story Clint Arndt heard all weekend. He’d seen the story on TV, heard about it on the radio and read about it in the newspaper. This was the news story he instantly remembered when he saw the “deer hit” damage to the van brought in by Mount Hood Beverage Co. the Monday following Katie’s death.

The news reports instructed the public to be on the look-out for a dark sedan or van with damage to the front right side, specifically near the headlight. Repair shops across the area were sent faxes encouraging technicians to call the Lane County Sheriff’s Department if a vehicle came in fitting the description of the one that hit Katie.

Arndt suspected the van from Mount Hood was the one police were looking for, but he wasn’t 100 percent sure. For one thing, the Mount Hood van was white, not dark like the police report stated. For another, Mount Hood was a regular customer.

“I didn’t want to upset one of our customers and put them in jeopardy of legal action [if they didn’t deserve it],” he says.

On the other hand, the Mount Hood van had damage to the right side of the windshield, the right headlight and sideview mirror, in addition to the right front fender. These damages were almost identical to what Arndt had read and heard about on the news. And the picture of the Corona beer bottles on the side may have given the impression the vehicle was dark.

The only person Arndt mentioned anything about the van to was his wife, Mary. When he asked her what he should do, she left it up to him, saying he should call the police if that’s what he felt was right. “I pondered over it for two days before calling the sheriff,” he says.

What finally influenced his decision was the knowledge that calling the sheriff – and discovering who was responsible for the crime – might help the Lovelace family cope with their horrible loss. And Arndt could relate better than most, since six years before, his teen-age daughter, Tori, had been murdered in a carjacking in San Bernadino, Calif.

So on Wednesday morning, June 14, Arndt called the sheriff’s department from his home before leaving for work. “I wasn’t nervous about calling them,” he says. “I still didn’t know if it was the vehicle they were looking for, and I didn’t want to lead them in the wrong direction. I was kind of hoping it had been the van so the Lovelaces weren’t stuck in limbo anymore. They didn’t know who [had done this] or why any of this had happened.”

Arndt had only been at work for about an hour that Wednesday when police arrived at the shop. Work at the shop ceased as everyone observed the sheriff’s deputies inspecting the van. The deputies had a parking light assembly found at the scene of the accident and tried to fit it in the damaged area of the van. Like Cinderella’s foot in a slipper, the light assembly fit perfectly. The police impounded the vehicle, obtained a warrant and at 2:15 that afternoon, arrested Lee Russell Stubbs, charging him with the hit-and-run that resulted in the death of Katie Lovelace.

The police were lucky Arndt tipped them off when he did. The replacement parts for the van had arrived that morning and were set to be put on that afternoon. Then the van would’ve been ready for the paint booth – where all evidence of the crime would have been obliterated.

“The evidence Arndt supplied was crucial,” says Sgt. Kevin Woodworth, who oversaw the investigation. “I think his call broke the case. The physical damage to the van was huge … and it made the case.”

“If [Arndt] hadn’t stepped up and said something isn’t right here,” Janet begins. “The case never would have gotten solved,” Kelly finishes.

Not long after their investigation started, the police discovered Stubbs had been driving along Mathews Road at the time of the hit-and-run. Stubbs lived less than a mile from the Lovelaces, on the same road. Geographically speaking, they were neighbors, but they had never met – although Katie’s mother recalls seeing Stubbs driving around occasionally in that same company truck.

The police had been told Stubbs and a friend, Aaron Woods, also an employee of Mount Hood, had left Stubbs’ home at about the time of the accident. They had been called into work to make a beer run for a local tavern and had been on their way to Mount Hood. But until the arrest, police hadn’t been able to get ahold of Stubbs to question him. At this point, however, Stubbs was seen as an important witness, not a suspect.

Early on, police suspected the driver was someone local because the 28-foot-wide Mathews Road was used mainly by residents of Pleasant Hill and Eugene. But initially, speculation drove fears that maybe a high school senior, celebrating graduation, was responsible.

A couple days following the tragedy, sheriff’s deputies were joined by Katie’s brother Jim and her sister’s husband in a search of the crime scene. During their investigation, they found a piece of lens from the turn signal, which ended up being the piece that matched up to the van.

Meanwhile, police canvassed the area, questioning just about everyone to see if they had any information. On Tuesday, June 13, while the Mount Hood van sat dormant at Wentworth Buick awaiting parts, Woodworth conducted an air search for the vehicle but yielded no positive results.

Once Arndt made the call to the sheriff’s department, however, things moved very quickly. The van was connected to Mount Hood, and in no time, led police to Lee Russell Stubbs.

“The [management at Mount Hood] had some suspicions, but no way to prove it,” says Woodworth. “They were very supportive and cordial when we came in [to arrest Stubbs]. Stubbs was cooperative and issued a statement, admitting his involvment [in the hit-and-run] right there.”

At the sentencing hearing, Stubbs’ defense attorney, George Derr, said Stubbs had attempted to go back to the scene of the crime a few minutes after the accident, but when he heard the anguish of the Lovelace family upon discovering what had happened, Stubbs didn’t have the “skill, background or maturity to deal with that.”

Instead, Stubbs dealt with how to get away with the crime. His passenger the night of the tragedy had been under the influence of alcohol. After Katie was hit, the pair dumped out all cans of beer in the van after they got the vehicle back to Mount Hood. But Stubbs fiercely denied being intoxicated at the time of the accident, and no witnesses would say otherwise. That weekend, he went to a fly-fishing shop and purchased deer hair, placing it in the damaged areas of the van to make it look like he’d hit a deer, not a 12-year-old girl.

The cover-up didn’t work, and on Aug. 2, Stubbs pled guilty to the charges of criminally negligent homicide, hit-and-run and tampering with evidence. In front of about 80 onlookers and Lovelace family supporters, Stubbs gave a tearful apology at his sentencing hearing on Aug. 14 before Judge Lyle Velure. Without comment, Velure handed down the pleaded sentence of 40 months in prison – 20 months for criminally negligent homicide, 18 months for the hit-and-run and two months for tampering with evidence.

The 40-month sentence Stubbs received caused an uproar in the town of Pleasant Hill. Arndt remembers the assistant district attorney, Erik Hasselman, calling him about a week before the sentencing took place, letting him know what the punishment would be.

“I told him I wasn’t happy about the sentence,” Arndt says. “A lot of people were upset, especially considering [Stubbs’] blatant act when he tried to hide the fact he hit Katie instead of just stopping. He might think he’s sorry, but he’s probably sorry for himself because he got caught.”

Kelly and Janet Lovelace have since started a fight to get harsher penalties for hit-and-run offenders like Stubbs – where the victim is a child. Arndt, who says he hadn’t really followed hit-and-run sentencing before this, has said he’ll assist them in any way he can.

And it looks like others may be willing to assist them as well. Their fight has gotten the attention of many in the Oregon state legislature, and following the 2000 elections, they expect some positive results. “We’ve gotten good support,” says Janet. “Anyone who’s heard about what happened after the fact, after our daughter was killed, they feel that [Stubbs] should have gotten more time. It’s not so much the hit-and-run. It’s everything he did after to cover it up.”

The local news media has lent its support, as well, providing editorials and backing the Lovelace’s cause once the state congress is back in session.

“I’m sure you’ve read about tragedies in the newspaper, but until you’ve been there, you don’t realize that somewhere there’s a mother and father who are truly suffering,” says Kelly. “This is ending their world as they know it.

“But Clint,” Kelly continues, “because of his situation [with his daughter], he understands it.”

Though the fondness Arndt and the Lovelaces have for one another is obvious when talking with each of them, they haven’t yet met face to face. And Arndt is leaving the decision of when to do so with the family. “The Lovelaces are wonderful people,” he says. “That’s the real tragedy of this situation. They were such a close-knit family, and they lost their [youngest] daughter.”

The two families do talk occasionally on the phone, and Arndt lends support. “I just tell them what we’ve been through with missing our daughter,” he says. “We tell them you never really get over it. Hopefully, you can go on, but you know she’ll always be a part of your life. I tell them how different situations arise, like when you hear a song that was your daughter’s favorite and how things like that just make you cry. That it’s part of the grieving process.”

Arndt has received numerous cards and letters from nearby residents, thanking him for what he did to help bring Stubbs to justice. Many have called him a hero, but the soft-spoken Arndt seems uninterested in the attention. He seems to be just as interested in fixing cars now as he was 32 years ago.

But something has changed. In addition to his daughter, whose pictures he keeps affixed inside his toolbox so he always has a view of her when he works, he now has another young woman to remember, a young woman he never met, but whose family is deeply grateful to him for helping to see that justice was served.

The story, however, doesn’t end with Stubb’s sentencing. A pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident every 107 minutes in this country.

“I just read the other day about another hit-and-run,” says Janet. “And I thought, ‘That vehicle will end up in some [body shop] someplace.’ Those techs can do a great service to the victim’s families. It’s a terrible thing to have happen, but I can’t imagine not knowing who it was that killed your loved one.”

Writer Mike Lawrence is associate editor of BodyShop Business.

A Checkered Driving Past

Lee Russell Stubbs got a 40-month sentence despite a spotty driving record. His license had been suspended in September 1991 after two tickets and a reckless driving conviction. Before getting his license back two years later, he was caught driving with a suspended license.

He later received more speeding tickets and after being caught driving while uninsured in 1994, he voluntarily gave up his license in May 1995. After getting his license reinstated in August 1996, he kept his driving record clear until February 1998, when he got another speeding ticket. Another ticket followed in May of 1999, and two months later, Stubbs received a warning letter regarding his record.

Before the last ticket, however, Stubbs qualified for and received a commercial driver’s license in March 1999, which made it legal for him to drive large semi-trucks. Thus he was able to get a job at Mount Hood and was able to be behind the wheel of the company van that killed Katie Lovelace. “There were several driving complaints against him,” says Sgt. Kevin Woodworth, who headed the investigation.

“His neighbors had written at least one letter to [Mount Hood] outlining their concerns about his driving.”

For causing a fatal accident, Stubbs has lost his driving privileges for eight years.

A Hero Among Us

Dear BodyShop Business,

Our community was recently dealt a great loss when on the night of [our local] high school’s graduation, a 12-year-old girl, Katie Lovelace, was run down while walking home from a neighbor’s house. The driver did not stop.

Katie was a great example and well-loved in the community. Over 1,000 people came to her memorial service. I can’t fathom the pain her family must be going through to lose a child so young and in such a senseless way. The reasons and actions of the driver may never be known. But one thing I believe is if not for one bodyman’s gut feelings and his coming forward to question the driver’s claim he hit a deer, the police might still be looking for him. This man is a hero to me and my community for speaking up. I don’t know if they still give Hero-of-the-Year awards, but I think Clint Arndt of Wentworth Buick, GMC in Eugene, Ore., is the overwhelming choice in our community of Pleasant Hill. If not for Mr. Arndt’s quick actions, the driver could still be loose, behind the wheel.

Rob Strader
Pleasant Hill, Ore.

Helping Parents Grieve

Clint Arndt has been working on getting the Parents of Murdered Children meetings back in Pleasant Hill. A national organization based in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Parents of Murdered Children is a place where parents can go to grieve and help each other overcome different obstacles they face in dealing with the loss of a murdered child. For information on this organization and to locate the chapter nearest you, call their headquarters at (513) 721-5683, or send them a letter at 100 E. 8th St., Suite B-41, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. Their Web address is (www.pomc.com).

The Hit-And-Run Paradox

Things are way out of whack in hit-and-run sentences. Not just because it’s such a short sentence, but because other laws actually encourage people involved in an accident to flee the scene. For example, if you have a few beers, try to drive home and on the way hit a pedestrian, you’re better off leaving the scene than staying. Why? Because if you’re driving drunk and you hit someone, you could be looking at 10 years or more in prison, depending on whether your victim survives. But if you go home, you’ll have time to sober up. When or if you’re eventually caught, you won’t be drunk anymore, and the cops can’t prove you were at the time of the accident. (Unless your drinking buddies rat you out.) Thus, the most they can pin on you is a hit-and-run, plus vehicular homicide if your victim dies. And with such limited prison space available, you can always plea your sentence down. Depending on your previous record, you’ll likely be back in your own bed within five years. These light sentences encourage those who commit a DUI homicide – which can put you away for 30 years – to flee the scene of the accident, and as a result, they’ll only see two years in prison if they’re caught.

How’d this get so screwed up? Well, sentences for drunk drivers got tough in the 1980s. At the same time, however, sentences for many other driving-related crimes remained where they were. Since occasions occur where these crimes overlap, taking place at the same time (drunk driving and a hit-and-run), the perpetrator has an opportunity to face the music for one offense, while escaping prosecution for the other. Lee Russell Stubbs claimed to be sober at the time of the accident, and no one could refute that (though he does admit to drinking three beers four hours before the accident). But if he had been drunk, Stubbs would’ve been an idiot to admit it. Even if he didn’t know the sentence for a hit-and-run was so light, he, like most people, likely knew a sentence for a hit-and-run while intoxicated wasn’t.

An Incomplete Sentence

A child born this year wouldn’t have even started pre-school by the time Lee Russell Stubbs is released from prison for the hit-and-run death of Katie Lovelace. His sentence breaks down like this: 18 months for the hit-and-run, 20 months for criminally negligent homicide and two months for trying to cover up the crime. A light punishment considering the severity of the crime. Stubbs claimed he had infinite amounts of remorse about what he did. And let’s say that’s true. Let’s say he was so upset that at his sentencing, he said, “You know Judge, putting me away for 40 months is crazy. I did a horrible thing, and I think I should be put away for 10 years, minimum.” The crazy thing is, even if Stubbs had said this, the judge would have responded, “Sorry, but I can’t do that.”

Why? First, a debate exists on whether prison time should be used for rehabilitation – and not punishment – of the offender. Many who push for rehabilitation contend punishment does nothing to prevent the offender from committing more crimes once he’s released, and it doesn’t help society as a whole. By this rationale, Stubbs shouldn’t have to go to jail at all. He was driving, got distracted and hit a little girl. He’s no homicidal maniac who needs rehabilitated. Thus, if there’s no reason to rehabilitate Stubbs (who says he’s genuinely sorry for what he did) and since he’ll have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life, the rehab-pushers may say he’s suffered enough. A lengthy (or any) prison sentence would be unnecessary overkill.

However, this view is in the minority. Most would agree that Stubbs should be severely punished. If he’s rehabbed, fine. But the Lovelace family should know the guy who killed their daughter is locked away and miserable. Isn’t that the essence of punishment? So once again, why only the three-year sentence?

For one thing, prisons are overcrowded. The quick-fix solution to this is to build more prisons. But two major roadblocks keep this from happening. One is that no one wants a prison near their homes. And since homes are everywhere, it’s hard to construct a prison that isn’t also close to the local Dairy Queen. If you want to see your property values drop, then happily sign the petition that calls for a prison to be built by your kids’ swing-set. So the gist here is that people want more prisons, but we don’t want the prisons within 100 miles of our homes.

The second roadblock is that as more money is spent to build more prisons, money gets taken away from other programs. Schools suffer big-time here. If more money in the budget goes to prisons, less is going to schools. Numerous studies have been done that show a correlation between fund-deficient schools and criminal activity. When money is taken away from schools to build prisons, education suffers and more students become criminals. Then there’s a need for more prisons, which means money is further taken away from schools. Thus, the solution of building more prisons actually adds to the prison overcrowding problem.

Why are prisons so crowded? Ask 10 people on the street this question and you’ll get 10 answers. It appears that getting tough on crime during the ’70s and ’80s (specifically, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984) filled prisons at a rate faster than they could be built. Laws and mandatory sentences were passed without first properly inferring the magnitude of these laws. For example, making lengthy prison stays mandatory for drug offenders was likely designed to reduce the amount of drugs on the street, not increase the number of prisoners. But it didn’t work out as planned. Drug usage and commerce remained so prevalent that it was simple for police to arrest a drug offender. They could follow a college student wearing a Pink Floyd shirt and in 20 minutes, have six arrests. Mandatory sentences then ensured that those arrested were put away for a while. But mandatory sentences ensured that no case was decided on its own merits. A judge was forced to sentence such offenders, no matter who he was or despite his prior record, to a certain amount of time in prison. So many of these sentences were handed down that prisons began to overflow. Twenty-one percent of prisoners in state prisons were there for drug offenses. Popularity around the “Three Strikes” law also helped prisons get crowded. But as the government “got tough” on crime, it may have actually softened the consequences for many.

Among those many are the prisoners released after the minimum part of their sentence is served. This happens for the crimes that don’t have mandatory minimums, where judges and parole boards can arbitrarily decide someone’s fate. However, crowded prisons tie the hands of these decision-makers. Sentences may be handed down based not on the case, but on the number of cells available.

Stubbs benefited because the sentences for a hit-and-run and tampering with evidence are based on prison space available, not merits of the case. But he also benefited because the general sentence as stated in the books, despite pleas from the public, isn’t changing thanks to all these extenuating circumstances.

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