A Whitefish man who struck and nearly killed two people while driving drunk last summer pleaded guilty by way of an Alford plea Thursday morning in Flathead County District Court.
James Bowling French Jr., 57, pleaded guilty to one count of felony criminal endangerment. The Alford plea means he is not acknowledging guilt, but does mean he believes he could have been found guilty of the charge.
As part of the plea agreement with the Flathead County Attorney’s Office, two counts of negligent vehicle assault were dismissed against French.
According to court documents, Whitefish Police officers were called to Baker Avenue the evening of July 14, 2018, for a report of an accident involving a 2012 Mustang GT. The car was found at a 45-degree angle up against a guardrail.
Police found one of the victims, Michael Marks, impaled on a tree branch. His wife, Beth, was found on the ground, about 20 feet below the street in a ditch. Both suffered severe injuries.
When officers spoke with French, he admitted he was driving and said he had consumed alcohol earlier in the day. According to the police report, French’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and he smelled of alcohol.
After being transported to the police department, French again admitted he had consumed alcohol before driving into Whitefish for dinner. He said he lost control of his vehicle and saw the two pedestrians shortly before hitting them, the court documents state.
French then completed several standard field sobriety tests, which showed indications of impairment, according to court documents. He was then taken to North Valley Hospital where a blood sample was taken. French also gave a breath sample that allegedly resulted in a blood alcohol level of 0.098. The legal limit in Montana is 0.08.
According to the affidavit, officers spoke with several witnesses who said they saw French’s vehicle speed toward and hit both pedestrians, sending both airborne.
French faces a maximum of 10 years in Montana State Prison and a fine of $50,000, but as part of the plea deal, a 6-year deferred sentence and a $1,000 fine were agreed to by both sides.
Lane Bennett, French’s attorney, told presiding Judge Heidi Ulbricht that both victims, Beth and Michael Marks, of Marietta, Ga., were in full agreement with the plea deal.
The couple sued, seeking compensation for the injuries they suffered in the crash. The Marks also are seeking punitive damages and any other relief ordered by the court.
Their suit claims French was in a drunken condition when he drove off the road, onto a sidewalk and hit the couple, causing serious injuries.
They also claimed that because of French’s actions, they incurred medical bills, lost wages, loss of an established course of life, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and other damages.
In addition, the couple maintained French acted with malice and reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of others.
It was settled earlier this year, but terms weren’t disclosed.
Bennett requested an $80,000 property bond be released because French must sell the family home to help satisfy the terms of the civil suit. He also will have to cash out retirement accounts to pay damages.
Judge Heidi Ulbricht ordered sentencing for 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24.
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.