Raul Benitez Santana appears in court via video on charges of vehicular homicide Monday, March 4 at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett. (Ryan Berry / )

Raul Benitez Santana appears in court via video on charges of vehicular homicide Monday, March 4 at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett. (Ryan Berry / )

Lynnwood man pleads not guilty in crash that killed WSP trooper

Raul Benitez Santana arraigned Tuesday on vehicular homicide charge in Trooper Chris Gadd’s death.

A Lynnwood man pleaded not guilty Tuesday, March 26 to charges that he sped down Interstate 5 at over 110 mph while intoxicated before fatally striking state Trooper Chris Gadd, who was parked on the shoulder.

Prosecutors charged Raul Benitez Santana, 32, with vehicular homicide while driving in a reckless manner and while under the influence last week, in the death of trooper Gadd, 27, a graduate of Kentlake High School.

On Tuesday, the defendant appeared unrestrained, in civilian clothes, for his arraignment before Snohomish County Superior Judge George Appel. About a half-dozen state troopers attended the hearing, as well as other police officers, loved ones and media.

Appel found probable cause for both counts.

Around 3 a.m. March 2, Gadd was on routine patrol for drunken drivers while parked on the shoulder near the Stimson Road overpass on I-5 south near Marysville, according to the charges. The defendant was reportedly driving a GMC Yukon Denali on the highway, with no headlights on.

Benitez Santana passed a truck going 70 mph, the charges say, citing dashcam footage from the truck. The Yukon’s passenger side fully entered the shoulder. Gadd’s brake lights turned on, prosecutors wrote.

Benitez Santana slammed into the back of Gadd’s car, causing catastrophic damage to both vehicles, according to charging papers. Benitez Santana’s car ricocheted across the interstate, while the police cruiser rotated into a ditch.

Gadd died at the scene. Moments later, a Navy van traveling south crashed into the GMC, the charges say. The driver broke his wrist.

A search warrant on the car’s Event Data Recorder showed the Yukon had been traveling 112 mph, just two seconds before impact. In the five seconds before the crash, the vehicle’s accelerator was “99 percent depressed,” according to the warrant’s findings.

“It would have been reckless for him to even drive 112 in the fast lane of the freeway,” deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow said in court Tuesday. “There’s no way other drivers can anticipate his movements at those speeds and he himself cannot adjust the driving conditions of those speeds, that’s why it’s so dangerous.”

While at the hospital, Benitez Santana told investigators he consumed alcohol and marijuana earlier that day, prosecutors allege.

Defense attorney Emily Hancock called the incident a “tragic accident,” but not a crime.

“What we have,” she said, “is a freeway that is clear, an alleged speed that is significantly above the speed limit. But that alone is insufficient to allege that this driving was reckless.”

The defendant reportedly had previous traffic violations, including three misdemeanors for driving with a suspended license.

Benitez Santana is an undocumented Mexican citizen, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security placed an immigration detainer on him, seeking to deport the defendant from the United States, according to court documents.

On Tuesday, defense attorney Tiffany Mecca requested Benitez Santana’s immigration status be stricken from the charging papers. Mecca said the public knowledge of Benitez Santana as an undocumented immigrant has incited racist comments against Latino people.

“I don’t know how we conduct a trial without addressing this issue, if it becomes the only thing people are talking about,” Mecca said. “This type of information being put in this affidavit is going to undermine Mr. Benitez Santana’s right to a fair trial.”

Appel denied that request.

“When trial comes around, there will be no reason that presents itself today why immigration status would be relevant, I would think,” Appel said. “But we are not there today and the considerations before the court are different than they will be at trial.”

Earlier this month, hundreds of law enforcement officers attended Gadd’s memorial at Angel of the Winds Arena on Hewitt Avenue.

Appel scheduled a jury trial for May 17, but that will likely be pushed back.

Benitez Santana remained behind bars in the Snohomish County Jail this week with bail set at $1 million.

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; maya.tizon@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @mayatizon.

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Flowers for slain trooper Chris Gadd begin to collect outside Washington State Patrol District 7 Headquarters on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

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