Prosecutors say they intend to seek life in prison for Kailen Kelly, the drunk driver who caused a crash in May that killed two Pace girls and injured their mother and friend.
MILTON — With his head bowed and tears occasionally running down his cheek, Kailen Kelly pleaded guilty Wednesday to all 14 counts stemming from the May 6 crash that killed two girls and seriously injured two other people.
Kelly, 35, stood before Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge David Rimmer as he entered his pleas, with defense attorney Randall Etheridge by his side. Family and friends of the girls who died in the crash sobbed quietly behind him.
Kelly's guilty plea included two counts of DUI manslaughter, one count of DUI with serious bodily injury, DUI with property damage and refusal to submit to a DUI test.
Kelly was drunk and speeding on Woodbine Road in Pace when he plowed his truck into an SUV driven by 39-year-old Melanie Harrell.
Harrell and an 18-year-old passenger, McKenzie Murphy, were seriously injured in the crash. Harrell's two daughters, 17-year-old Michaela Dowdy and 7-year-old Stormie Harrell, were killed.
Kelly, who will be sentenced next month, faces a minimum of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison. He will only be sentenced on seven of the 14 charges because some of them are duplicates.
Prosecutors said they intend to seek the maximum sentence.
PREVIOUS STORY: Community rallies around family of crash victims >>
Etheridge said his client agreed to plea so as not to “put the family (of the victims) through any trial.”
State Attorney Bill Eddins said he was pleased with Kelly’s guilty pleas but emphasized no plea agreement had been made.
“By (pleading guilty), we avoid an expensive trial and one that (would be) emotionally difficult for the family of the victims,” Eddins said. “The family of the victims, and the victim herself, are very pleased that the defendant has admitted guilt.”
He also called the case “one of the most egregious cases that I’ve had to prosecute ... in the 45 years that I’ve been attorney.
“It’s very tragic, and we’re very pleased ... that (Kelly) did not require the victims’ family to go through a sworn statement or deposition,” he continued. “We’re thankful for that because of the emotional nature of this case.”
Authorities say that on the afternoon of May 6, Kelly was highly intoxicated and speeding his pickup truck down Woodbine Road, nearly hitting several cars. A Santa Rosa County sheriff's deputy spotted Kelly and attempted to pull him over, but ended the pursuit shortly before the crash to protect other motorists.
But the deputy continued to follow Kelly’s car, and he crested a hill on Woodbine Road just in time to see a “cloud of dust and debris,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. Kelly had crashed his truck into Harrell’s Buick SUV.
All four occupants of the SUV had to be extricated from the car. Michaela was pronounced dead at the scene and Stormie was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The deputy wrote in his report that when he went to help Kelly, he smelled alcohol. He also said he told Kelly that he had been involved in a car crash and there were serious injuries and possibly a dead person, and Kelly “didn’t appear to be remorseful or bothered by this information.”
Kelly was arrested and has been held in the Santa Rosa County Jail without bond. Etheridge filed a second motion requesting bond for his client in June, saying Kelly owns a small business called Jennifer Kelly Flooring and had numerous tiling jobs under contract while he was being held.
Etheridge also said Kelly has a wife and three children ages 7, 12 and 15 who “greatly depend on (his) physical, financial and emotional support.
“The defendant is the sole financial provider of his immediate family,” the motion said.
Rimmer denied the motion.
It wasn’t clear if Kelly’s family was in the courtroom Wednesday, but Melanie Harrell, McKenzie Murphy and their families sat just a few rows behind him. They sobbed quietly and embraced one another as Kelly pleaded guilty to each of the 14 charges.
He will be sentenced Sept. 24 after a pre-sentencing investigation.
ORIGINAL STORY: Deputy ended pursuit of DUI driver moments before crash that killed child, teenager >>