To her large and close-knit family, 59-year-old Mary Jo Claunch was Superwoman.
She was the best mom, the best friend and everyone’s favorite “Auntie Jo-Jo.”
She was the kind of person, her daughter told Judge Kelly Neel this morning, who “could turn a neighborhood of strangers into lifelong friends.”
All that ended on Highway 101 just north of Orick on Oct. 13, 2020. Eureka resident Jamie Lee Vaughn, driving under the influence of methamphetamine, lost control of her Jeep and it collided head-on with the car carrying San Jose residents Claunch and her husband Duane Claunch.
This morning Vaughn, who recently pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and other charges, was sentenced to the maximum term of seven years in state prison. Before Neel passed sentence, she heard from a long line of Claunch’s grief-stricken family members.
Duane Claunch, who suffered horrific injuries in the wreck, said he and his wife were trapped in their demolished vehicle until help arrived about 30 minutes later. Both were conscious. Duane said he will never forget his wife’s last words to him that morning: “Duane-o, I’m not going to be the same.”
Mary Jo died a week later at Stanford Hospital after her husband and children made the excruciating decision to stop life support. A team of doctors from Stanford Hospital and Kaiser Medical had told them “Mary Jo was gone and she wasn’t coming back,” Duane recalled.
That forced him to make the choice “to kill the love of my life.” Mary Jo died one day after their 35th anniversary. She missed the arrival of her first grandchild by one month.
Vaughn, 37, was sentenced to three years for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, three years for causing great bodily injury to Duane Claunch and one year for having multiple victims. She will be credited for a total of 837 days. She has served 558 actual days and will receive just 15 percent credit because causing great bodily injury is considered a violent crime.
Ironically, under California law vehicular manslaughter is considered a serious but not violent crime. As Neel pointed out this morning, under the law Vaughn would have received less time if Duane Claunch had also died.
Also, as Duane Claunch noted, it’s apparently smarter to drive under the influence of an illegal substance than under the influence of alcohol, because the law sets a limit on what level of blood alcohol causes impairment. There is no such limit for illegal substances.
During Vaughn’s preliminary hearing, an expert testified Vaughn had ingested four to five times more than what’s considered the therapeutic dosage of meth.
Vaughn has a history of felony convictions, including for theft and possession of drugs for sale. Just last month she overdosed on some fentanyl she found in the jail. Vaughn survived because she was rushed to the hospital.
She read a brief statement this morning expressing her remorse, but said “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to harm anyone.”
Vaughn sat silently next to Public Defender Luke Brownfield as many speakers appeared either in court or via Zoom. Also, District Attorney Maggie Fleming read a number of statements from grieving family members.
Nancy Anderson, Mary Jo’s sister, told Vaughn she had ruined life for Mary Jo’s family and “I don’t want you to have a normal life … I do not forgive you for what you have done.”
Mary Jo’s youngest child, Zachary Claunch, said the day that changed his world was just a normal Tuesday until he got a call from his sister. She told him Mom and Dad had been in “a really bad accident.”
“I was crying and asking questions and she was answering questions and crying,” he recalled.
“Mom was a trooper,” he said. “All of us agreed that she would not want to live in the vegetative state promised by Jamie Vaughn and her injuries.”
(“Vaughn) robbed me of my biggest fan in every single event in my life,” Zachary said.
He also passed on some advice his mom gave to her children: “Say yes every chance you get because life is so short.”
Kirsten Claunch, Mary Jo’s oldest child and only daughter, said “I go to bed thinking about her and wake up thinking about her … I can’t listen to her favorite songs or make her favorite desserts without crying.”
Mary Jo’s celebration of life was postponed for months because of the pandemic. When it was finally held, 350 people attended.
Deputy District Attorneys Carolyn Schaffer and Jane Mackie were the prosecutors in the case.