Fatal tent crash: What we know about homeless man, driver

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A driver suspected of driving under the influence went off a North Seattle Interstate 5 ramp and into a small homeless encampment, killing a 19-year-old man. The crash highlights social issues surrounding homelessness in Seattle. Here’s what to know.

Where did it happen? 

The crash happened when a car drifted off the NB I-5 ramp for 50th Street that takes people to the U-District. Tents were pitched in a grassy, wooded median between the freeway and the off-ramp.

When did it happen? 

Washington State Patrol, the agency handling the crash, says it crash happened about 4:45 a.m. on Monday.

A KIRO 7 News employee was driving on NB Interstate 5 on Sunday around 5 p.m. when some tents were being pitched on the small hill.

See photos here. 

Who was the victim? 

The medical examiner describes the victim as 19-year-old Walter L. Burton.

Walter L. Burton, a registered sex offender, was asleep in his tent under a tree when a driver crashed into him.
© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Deonna Hughes told The Seattle Times she was Burton's girlfriend. She told the newspaper that he felt safe in the area, which he called "his island."

Hughes said that a few years ago Burton got into trouble and left his house.

According to the King County offenders list, Burton was registered as a sex offender who was not complying with offender requirements.

His offenses were listed as voyeurism. 

His listed address was about 20 blocks away from the area where the crashed happened.

Who was the driver? 

WSP troopers said the 33-year-old driver ran over the tent in which Walter Burton was sleeping. The driver, identified as Oscar Gutierrezde-De Jesus, fled the scene in his car, according to the Washington State Patrol, but was later taken into custody. 

Authorities said the male driver had an odor of alcohol about him and "possibly something else."  He is suspected of DUI and was taken to Harborview for a blood draw as well as for treatment of an ankle injury and some lacerations.

Gutierrezde-De Jesus was supposed to be at a bail hearing at 2:30 on Tuesday, but he was still at Harborview Medical Center.

He was booked into King County jail around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. 

Has the driver been charged?

A WSP detective is waiting for incident reports from Seattle Police and troopers at the scene. Those reports will then be forwarded to a prosecutor who will decide what, if any, criminal charges will be filed.

Johnson expected any charges would likely be related to vehicular homicide and felony hit and run.

Since the victim was camping illegally, why could the driver be held responsible? 

DUI attorney Bill Kirk said in such cases, there would not be a full legal defense based purely on the fact that someone should not have been camping there.

A victim would have had to be 100 percent responsible for the cause of the accident in order for the driver to be cleared. In this case, the tent was off the roadway.

“Regardless of whether the tent should be there or not, the allegation is that you have a car that left the roadway and ended up striking an individual. Cars should not be leaving the roadway,” Kirk said.

How long has the camp been set up? 

Kris Olsen with the Washington State Department of Transportation says a team of employees works a few days a week to try to keep property clear of the homeless camps, but over the past year and a half, it's become an uphill battle.

"We regularly go through and clean up the encampments after providing the folks who are there notice, but as we've all seen, the encampments often come back," said Olsen.

The location where the death occurred was just cleared a month ago, and was on rotation for another sweep next month.

What are city leaders doing to get people off the streets?

The crash comes a week after Seattle council members introduced legislation that would change the city’s current practice of encampment sweeps.

The ordinance was drafted by the ACLU and Coalition on Homelessness and would set a precedent for people sleeping outside.
 
While this would not change the actions of WSDOT on the property where this accident occurred, here are a few proposed conditions for city of Seattle property: 

  • Outdoor living spaces in locations deemed unsuitable or unsafe are to be cleared with 48 hours’ notice.
  • For outdoor living areas that are not deemed unsafe, unsuitable or hazardous, residents will be cleared out only after being offered an adequate and accessible housing option with at least 30 days advance written notice.
  • Camping on sidewalks, rights of way, school grounds, private property or highway overpasses, among other unsuitable locations, would not be allowed.

 
Opponents of the legislation said this would exacerbate existing public safety concerns.
“I agree that the city can do a better job of how we respond to homelessness in Seattle. But the legislation introduced today is not the answer,” Tim Burgess said in a news release.

“This ordinance tips this balance decidedly away from our public health and safety responsibilities. It essentially establishes a new right to camp on public property throughout the city, including in our parks and greenbelts, and on city sidewalks and planting strips.”
 
How would we pay to fix the homeless problem?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who's been trying to tackle the homeless problem, stopped by the encampment at 11:45 a.m. to see the area for himself. He told KIRO 7 that while this accident occurred on state property, he may need to ask Seattle voters to raise taxes again to combat homelessness.

We as a city can no longer expect quick action from the state or federal government. And I am deeply disappointed over that. So we have to ask ourselves, is the only humane thing left to do to raise our own tax dollars, to provide more shelter?” Murray said.

Murray would not say how much he would be asking in increased taxes. He said he would like to begin conversations with the City Council about raising revenue, when it has become clear that state and federal governments will not provide more help.

After Murray declared a state of emergency last November, the city designated more than $7 million to spend on more emergency shelter beds and outreach services, bringing the city’s annual spending on homelessness to about $50 million.

Murray said that even with more taxes, he would like to see a shift toward spending not on emergency shelter beds, but on getting longer-term solutions.

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