LISBON - A Lisbon-area man was sentenced to prison in a traffic fatality case pursued by the state when the Columbiana County Prosecutor's Office decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed.
Jeffrey L. House, 48, of Logtown Road, was sentenced this week in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court to four years in prison after previously pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide in the death of 53-year-old Gary L. Paulin in 2008.
The charge, a first-degree felony, carried a maximum-possible sentence of 10 years in prison and $20,000 fine, but Paul Scarsella, a senior assistant with the Ohio Attorney General's Office, agreed to a four-year sentence for House as part of the plea deal.
The accident occurred west of Lisbon on U.S. Route 30 near state Route 172 at 1:47 a.m. Nov. 23, 2008, when an F-150 pickup truck owned by House's then-wife went left of center, striking head-on a Chevrolet Tracker being driven by Paulin.
The truck driver fled the scene on foot. House claimed to have driven the truck to a friend's house in Lisbon on the evening of Nov. 22 and left the keys in it while the two of them went to the Night Court bar. House said the truck was gone when he returned at 1:50 a.m. and then he reported it stolen. House had a cut on his arm and bruise on his hip, which he claimed to have sustained in a fall from the friend's porch.
During the sentencing hearing, Paulin's brother, Don Paulin, thanked Scarsella and the Attorney General's Office, "without whose assistance this case would never have gotten this far."
When asked after the hearing to elaborate, Don Paulin, a Perry Township police officer, declined further comment. His sister, Patricia Hall, said the prosecutor's office "didn't want to do anything unless everything was handed to them on a silver platter. That's my opinion," she said.
Hall said the highway patrol put them in contact with the state Attorney General's Office, which agreed to take the case after examining the evidence.
Highway patrol trooper Mike Smith said there was no new evidence that came into their possession in the nearly four-year period between the fatality and when House was indicted last September.
Hall said the case was based on circumstantial evidence, and Chief Assistant County Prosecutor John Gamble said there were evidentiary issues from the beginning. The prosecution only has one chance to get it right at trial, which is why they were reluctant to take it to grand jury until ready.
"I'm very happy for the Paulin family because there was no doubt that Jeffrey House was guilty of the crime. The issue was whether the evidence would hold up to scientific scrutiny," he said.
Gamble said they had no objection to stepping aside to let the Attorney General's Office examine the evidence and then let the state take over the prosecution of the case. "We were asked if someone else could look at the case and we said they were welcome to do so," he said.
Scarsella said the state is often asked to help with local cases for many reasons, including heavy caseloads and lack of resources. He also said there was no new evidence.
"The troopers just worked it and they asked us to do it, and we helped them," Scarsella said.
Had the case gone to trial, the state was prepared to argue that House, whose license was under suspension at the time, had been drinking at a local bar just before the accident occurred and then made up the story about his truck being stolen.
During the hearing, House was criticized by Paulin's family for waiting all this time to admit his guilt.
"Why couldn't you just come forward and just admit what you did?" Hall asked him during the hearing. "You called your drinking buddy to pick you up and then you left my brother to die."
Don Paulin agreed. "I wouldn't have hated you so God (darn) much if you would have manned up that night," he told House.
House apologized to the family and blamed his failure to come forward because of advice from his prior attorney. "I wish I would've done this a long time ago, but I had a lawyer who said 'shut up, shut up, shut up,'" he said.
In addition to the prison sentence, Judge C. Ashley Pike ordered that House's driver's license be suspended for life.