‘You took his life’: Man gets prison time for Sunset Boulevard DUI crash that claimed father of two

ST. GEORGE — After a hearing where the family of a father killed by an intoxicated driver expressed forgiveness through tears while seeking justice, a 47-year-old St. George man was sentenced to the maximum of 1-15 years in prison Thursday at the 5th District Courthouse.

William Jacob Western looks around during the sentencing hearing for a DUI that killed a father of two, St. George, Utah, May 9, 2024 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

William Jacob Western was the surviving driver involved in a head-on vehicle collision on Sunset Boulevard last August that cost the life of a father of two and grandfather to four. As part of a plea agreement, Western pled guilty to driving his vehicle while under the influence of drugs resulting in death. Judge John Walton dismissed two other drug possession charges.

Western admitted in court to being intoxicated on hydrocodone, Ambien, Adderall and cannabis when his Dodge Ram pickup truck crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a Chevy S-10 pickup driven by Manuel Gomez last Aug. 15.

The 55-year-old St. George painter, who was on his way to work, was pronounced dead after being taken to St. George Regional Hospital.

Before sentencing, Gomez’s family walked into the courtroom with downcast eyes and pursed lips while wiping tears as they took up an entire row of the courtroom. 

Gomez’s wife, daughter-in-law and both sons addressed the court. Each had moments where their composure broke and each repeated the same three points: How special their father was, how they are still coping with his loss and their forgiveness of the defendant while asking that justice be served.

Shackled and clad in Purgatory Correctional Facility stripes, Western didn’t glance at the family members initially – looking either forward or down at the table. But as each family member spoke of pain and forgiveness, Western teared up and turned to look at the family .

Manuel Gomez is seen in image that was shown during his August 2023 funeral, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Metcalf Mortuary, St. George News

Juan Gomez, Gomez’s younger son, told the court his dad was the greatest man he ever knew. 

“He was always there. Now that he’s gone. Where do I turn to in time of need and time of questions?” Juan Gomez said, noting his dad’s work ethic where he sometimes had to work Saturdays but still made time for his family. 

“Whether it was sunny or cloudy he would work and he always provided for us,” the younger son said. “Now, there are moments where the sun shines but it doesn’t anymore.”

Jose Gomez, Manuel Gomez’s older son, looked right at Western toward the end of his statement to the court. 

“I forgive you, but my father’s life … you’ll have to carry it for the rest of yours,”  Jose Gomez said. 

As Western nodded his head and appeared to mouth the words “Thank you,” Gomez said, “I hope you can honor him. Don’t make excuses, just be a man. You took his life, you carry it.”

Speaking after the family and with his own father in court looking on, Western talked about being sick with the flu in the weekend before the crash. 

“On the morning of the accident, I woke up wondering how I was to perform my duties as a father. I saw my wife’s hydrocodone and painkiller sitting on the counter, and I remember thinking it was the solution to my problem,” Western told the court. “I remember taking my child to school, dropping him off and heading home, and then waking up to a nightmare.” 

Western talked about being a father himself and still being in shock that he took another man’s life. He said he has contemplated taking his own life.

“I thought a lot about what I would say or could say to the victim, and I want them to know that I suffer not because of jail or because of them, but with them,” Western said. “I will suffer a lifetime no matter where I’m at. Knowing that I took a father so valuable and so loved, and for that I’m truly sorry.”

Deputy Washington County Attorney Lane Wood speaks to Judge John Walton during the sentencing hearing for William Jacob Western at the 5th District Courthouse, St. George, Utah, May 9, 2024 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Walton, who wiped a tear himself at one point, noted that Gomez had to be “just a really, really good man” based on his family’s words. But while sentencing Western, he took particular notice of the testimony of Jose Gomez. 

“What to me was most powerful is the clear sentiment from the family, and it was expressed by his son who addressed the court last, that they don’t have ill will. They want you to have appropriate consequences, but they clearly don’t mean you ill will,” Walton said, addressing Western. “I thought his son’s request that you live your life in a way that honors their dad since he is no longer here and you are is pretty powerful stuff and I trust that you will do that and that you will make something of the time and change yourself in honoring Mr. Gomez.”

Speaking to St. George News outside the court after the hearing, Deputy Washington County Attorney Lane Wood said he “absolutely” couldn’t respond in the “incredibly brave and compassionate” way that Gomez did if his own family had experienced Western’s actions.

“Despite the tragic circumstances, they’ve been willing to show that compassion,” Wood said. “That was incredibly powerful to me. Someone who is more of the respond-with-anger type. I’m sure you saw some of my emotion in court today and it’s hard to take the emotion out of it.”

Along with the sentence, Western will need to pay monetary restitution to the family for an indefinite period and loses his right to bear a firearm.

Concerning the sentence, Wood noted that Walton is not able to go beyond the maximum time a person can get for the crime Western pled guilty to, noting that it won’t change without state legislation.  

“I think that justice has been served to the degree that the courts are capable of rendering justice on a case like this,” Wood said.

Western was credited with 255 days of time served Western on a sentence where he is eligible for parole after one year. 

Recounting the crash

The crash that ended Gomez’s life occurred just after 8 a.m. at the start of the August workday. Students were en route to the first day of school at nearby Paradise Canyon Elementary School and Utah Arts Academy. 

File photo shows the scene after the collision between Dodge Ram and Chevy S-10 pick-ups on Sunset Boulevard, leaving red paint across the ripped roof of the S-10, St. George, Utah, Aug. 15, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Kim Gomez told the court she had just taken her father-in-law’s granddaughter to her first day of sixth grade and was getting her 7-year-old son ready for school.

“I received the worst phone call,” she said. 

According to police and the plea deal signed by Western, the Dodge Ram driven by Western was going east on Sunset, while Gomez’s Chevy, carrying paint for his job, was going west. 

In court Thursday, Wood said witnesses told police that Western had a reckless driving pattern for two miles and had been driving around 20 mph over the speed limit. 

The Ram veered into the westbound lanes, slamming into the Chevy. The momentum moved the cars back into the eastbound side, sliding into the curb and leaving a trail of debris. 

The Chevy was smashed into debris stained by paint, and first responders had to use the Jaws of Life to remove what was left of the roof to free Gomez before he was pronounced dead at the hospital. 

“My dad was still stuck in the truck when I got there,” Jose Gomez said. “That scene still burns in my mind, him just hanging on by a seatbelt. I still feel as numb today as I did that day.”

Western was uninjured other than bruises and was taken into custody after a field sobriety test. 

The crash shut down both sides of Sunset until just after noon, causing disruption and closures at Phoenix Plaza, which was right next to the crash site.

File photo shows the scene after the collision between Dodge Ram and Chevy S-10 pick-ups on Sunset Boulevard, leaving red paint across the ripped roof of the S-10, St. George, Utah, Aug. 15, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The community came together for fundraisers for Gomez family in the days following the fatal crash. Through a translator, Gomez’s wife Maria Sepulveda told the court even while she still has trouble sleeping and leaving the house, she took some comfort seeing the hundreds that turned out at the fundraisers and seeing visual evidence of her husband’s impact. 

“My husband’s death also affected the community. He touched so many people,” Sepulveda said. “I would like to be that voice so another family could not be harmed. So they aren’t going through this pain my children and I are going through.”

A familiar face in court

Before Western’s case came up, the Gomez family had to sit through a string of consecutive DUI cases. 

Family members recognized one of them.

Later, during her testimony, Gomez’s daughter-in-law Kim Gomez told the court about how her children and their grandfather were inseparable, and every Sunday after church, he would take them all to the same restaurant and got to know the waitress who usually served them.

Defense attorney Trevor Terry speaks to the judge as defendant William Jacob Western listens nearby, St. George, Utah, May 9, 2024 | Screenshot from video courtesy of Utah State Courts, St. George News

That waitress, Nicole Ruiz, had a DUI sentencing of her own heard by the judge two cases before Western’s after failing an alcohol test after crashing her car in November 2020 and pleading guilty.

Seeing the family, Ruiz expressed guilt and shame for her alcohol addiction and hoped others could learn from her mistakes. 

“That family, they’re my regulars,” Ruiz told the judge, asking him to punish her. “It makes me absolutely sick my family has seen me go to jail so many times. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Ruiz received a 62-day jail sentence, with eight days served, for the third-degree felony. She stayed in the courtroom and after Walton’s sentencing went to console the Gomez family, who embraced her and offered forgiveness in return.

As Western was taken away in shackles to serve his sentence, he looked at his father in the courtroom and exchanged glances and words. 

Western’s father then walked over to the Gomez family and shared his thoughts.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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