A Klamath Falls man will find out today whether he will spend the next three years of his life in prison for driving home drunk from a wedding reception and hitting and killing 73-year-old Gary Keppen.
Armando Lara, 27, pleaded guilty in Klamath County Circuit Court Thursday to drunken driving and criminally negligent homicide in Keppen’s Feb. 16, 2008, death.
“I know that I took somebody’s husband, father, grandfather and someone who does a lot for this community,” Lara said during his sentencing hearing.
Judge Marci Adkisson heard testimony Thursday from experts and family and friends of Lara and Keppen, but decided to wait until today to decide Lara’s sentence.
Lake County District Attorney Dave Schutt, who prosecuted the case because the Keppen family was known by staff at the Klamath County District Attorney’s Office, recommended Lara be sentenced to three years in prison and community service.
Lara’s attorney, Rebecca Whitney-Smith, recommended probation time and 120 days imprisonment, which could include alternatives such as community service or work release. Whitney-Smith presented testimony from Lara’s friends, co-workers and family that she hoped would convince Adkisson to depart from usual sentencing guidelines.
Members of the victim’s family were among about a dozen people who testified during the five-hour sentencing hearing.
Dan Keppen, the victim’s son, told the court he would support community service for Lara in addition to a period of incarceration.
“(Armando Lara) could be a very powerful person and could be a positive impact on a lot of kids,” Dan Keppen said.
He said his father, Gary Keppen, and Lara lived similar lives. Both worked for the U.S. Forest Service, both were well-liked by everyone and both went out of their way to help others. Gary Keppen volunteered for youth athletic programs. Lara volunteers to shovel snow from the sidewalk and parking lot at his church.
During his testimony, Dan Keppen looked at Lara and told him he was forgiven.
“You need to know, Armando, we forgive you. We pray for you,” he said.
Alberto Lara, Lara’s older brother, told the court that his brother would better benefit the community outside of jail.
“Armando is a very responsible man. He’s accepted what he’s done,” Alberto Lara said.
Lara’s girlfriend, Ashley DuBrey, testified that Lara was ashamed of what he did and its impact on the Keppen family.
“He really puts himself in their place,” she said.
Testimony also revealed how Lara and two friends stopped their car while driving on Crater Lake Parkway in March 2009 to help a man on the bike path who appeared to be in distress. Lara’s assistance with CPR may have helped saved Ralph Watah’s life, witnesses said.
At work, Lara showed leadership and integrity, according to his co-workers.
This past summer, Lara was promoted to an engine captain with the U.S. Forest Service Klamath Ranger District, said Margaret Bailey, a U.S. Forest Service district ranger.
“Armando’s been an excellent employee,” she told the court.
He has a positive attitude, integrity and respects the people around him, Bailey added.
Other employees talked about how Lara is the first person to work, commonly volunteers to work weekends and leads by example.
There is a question if Lara would be able to keep his job if convicted and incarcerated for any length of time.
But, several fellow employees want to see him stay.
“I will do everything I possibly can to make sure Armando stays employed at the Klamath Ranger District,” Bailey said.
Whitney-Smith argued that there is a system in place for Lara to be successful and hopefully deter others from making the same mistakes he did. He has the support of family and friends and the ability to tell his story through such programs as Mothers Against Drunk Driving to youth who don’t stop to think about a designated driver, she said.
Remembering a coach, volunteer
Gary Keppen, 73, was a volunteer coach, umpire and referee, and participated in the SMART reading program.
He also helped seniors with their taxes and did triathlons, and was known to take nightly walks in his Pacific Terrace neighborhood. It was during one of those walks that the grandfather, father and husband was killed Feb. 16, 2008, by a drunken driver.
“Gary walked every night before bed,” said wife Marlene Keppen in a letter read in court.
He was wearing an orange reflective vest similar to gear that his son, Dan Keppen, said is still hanging at the family’s home.
Gary Keppen retired from the U.S. Forest Service after several years and was an active volunteer in the community, according to testimony during a sentencing hearing for Armando Lara, the man who pleaded guilty to driving drunk and killing Keppen.
“I couldn’t ask for a better dad,” Dan Keppen said. “He cared about other people.”
His dad attended a Bible group every Friday that Dan is now a part of, even though he’s the youngest by 25 years.
“There’s no doubt the guy’s in heaven,” Dan Keppen said.
— Megan Doyle