MILTON — After hearing from multiple witnesses and family members of the two Pace girls killed in the May 6 crash, Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge David Rimmer sentenced Kailen Kelly to life in prison.
Kelly, 35, pled guilty to all 14 charges on Aug. 15, saying that he didn’t want the family to relive the tragedy again by giving depositions. He faced a minimum 25 years, but the State Attorney’s Office pushed for a life sentence.
He was ultimately sentenced Monday on only seven of the 14 charges because some of them were duplicates, according to Rimmer. He is also required to pay $2,836 in mandatory fines.
For the first count of homicide, Kelly was issued a life sentence. For the second homicide charge and the charge of DUI causing great bodily injury, he was sentenced 15 years for each. For the misdemeanor charges — leaving the scene of a crash, refusing a DUI test and reckless driving — he was sentenced with time served.
“I’ve been involved in the criminal justice system for over 40 years, and I’ve seen a lot of homicide cases, prosecuted a lot of DUI manslaughter cases … but I can tell you, this is the worst DUI manslaughter case I have ever seen in my entire career,” Rimmer said after the sentencing. “All I can say to you sir is … now you’ve reaped the whirlwind.”
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.
The family had just spent the day at the beach and were turning into their neighborhood when Kelly hit them head-on. They were 400 feet from their home.
Assistant State Attorney Matt Gordon called several witnesses to the stand before the sentencing. The first was Richard Eisenzimmer, a man who caught the moments leading up to the fatal crash on his dash cam.
Gordon played parts of the dash cam footage for the courtroom where you can see Kelly hanging partly out of his window and illegally passing Eisenzimmer and other cars in front of him. Kelly ends up striking a blue Jeep from behind. The footage shows debris fall from the vehicle and Kelly continue to drive.
Eisenzimmer said he was about to call 911 when he saw a Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office patrol car with its lights and sirens, so he decided not to.
When he got home, he downloaded his dash cam video and called the Sheriff’s Office, thinking he could assist in what he thought was a simple hit-and-run case. However, dispatch told him there was a terrible accident just minutes later.
John Eykyn, the owner of the Jeep that Kelly hit, was the second witness. He explained to the judge what he experienced and how he didn’t even see him coming. Rene Henderson, another witness who was almost struck by Kelly driving in the opposite lane of traffic, detailed her experience.
She saw police lights and tried to move to the side of the road. Just seconds later, Kelly’s truck came plowing toward her and she was able to move over enough for him to barely get through.
“How he got between me and the other vehicle, I do not know,” she said. “I very well could have been a fatality.”
A fourth witness, Jacob Smith, recalls driving home from a movie with his three children when he saw Kelly’s truck driving straight toward him. He quickly drove his vehicle into a ditch to avoid collision.
“If I would have been engaged with my children in conversation, it would have been a very bad situation,” he said.
Patrick Benton was the fifth witness to talk; however, he discussed an accident he had with Kelly in March. According to Benton, Kelly struck the right side of his vehicle while he was stopped at a red light.
It was raining and Kelly said he didn’t have his wallet, so the men agreed to go to Kelly’s house so they could exchange insurance information. Instead, Kelly fled at a high rate of speed, ran a red light and hit a telephone pole.
Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Cribb was the next witness. Minutes before the crash, Kelly — driving at a high rate of speed — passed Cribb in his marked patrol car. He immediately turned on his lights and sirens and worked to catch up with him.
Cribb said he drove next to Kelly in order to get a good look at him, because he knew he might need to cancel the pursuit due to the high speed and Kelly’s disregard for safety. Cribb used his PA system to command Kelly to stop, but he kept driving.
Cribb slowed down, canceled the pursuit and let other deputies know to be on the lookout for the truck. Just moments later, he pulled up on the accident scene.
“It was probably one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen, military experience included,” Cribb said. “It looked like a bomb had gone off. It was disgusting.”
The Florida Highway Patrol trooper who helped investigate the crash, Cpl. Lawrence Slick, spoke next. As he read the names of the deceased victims, the Harrell family sobbed from the audience. Slick also began crying.
Slick said the investigators found a cooler, an empty 12-pack container for Modelo beer and broken Modelo bottles throughout Kelly’s truck, which had caught fire in a ditch. Only one bottle from the 12-pack was unopened.
According to the FHP investigation, Kelly was traveling at 94 mph, full-throttle, five seconds before the crash. He maintained that speed until one second before impact when he let off the accelerator and decelerated to 88 mph. The Harrells’ SUV was decelerating as well, and only going 18 mph.
His blood alcohol level was 0.128 four hours after the accident, still well over the legal limit. Kelly also tested positive for marijuana.
The day after the crash, Slick spoke with Kelly’s wife who said they spent their day at their son’s baseball game and went to a movie. She left him at the house to pick up their children and asked him to stop drinking. When she got home, he wasn’t there.
She contacted him and he said he was at the river fishing. She went to pick him up, but instead of getting in her vehicle, Kelly fled in his truck. She attempted to follow him and spoke with him on the phone as Cribb was telling him to pull over.
Although Kelly’s wife and oldest daughter, Kaila, were in the audience, they didn’t testify. Kaila had written Judge Rimmer a letter in early September talking about her dad’s character.
“Sacred Heart Hospital has awarded me one wish form the ‘Make A Wish’ children’s foundation and there is nothing more I could wish for other than having my dad home before the day I die,” said Kaila who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia five years ago.
Matthew Harrell, Stormie’s father and Michaela’s stepfather, spoke to the judge about the pain his family has endured.
“Life in prison is too good for him,” he said.
Melanie Harrell, who remains in an arm brace after breaking her right arm, leg and sternum in the crash, spoke next.
“My life has been miserable,” she said, talking about all the things she will miss about her daughters. “I’m sorry, but I feel like he should spend his life in prison.”
Jack Dowdy, Michaela’s father, said that Kelly has “devastated a lot of lives, including his own,” and agreed on wanting a life sentence.
“No matter the sentence, we’ll never get them back,” he said.
Joshua Harrell, the girls’ older brother, read a letter he wrote about his sisters. The last day he spent with them was the day before the accident. It was the day of prom, and he talked about how he “woke up to the smell of burning hair” from Michaela's hair styling and how beautiful she looked before the dance.
He and his family occasionally giggled through the tears when Joshua would read a fond memory of the girls.
Kelly was the last to speak. He read a letter he wrote the family as he continuously sobbed.
“I stand here broken because I have stolen away from you, and I am sorry with all my heart that I’m not able to give them back,” Kelly said. “My mom used to tell me that sometimes sorry wasn’t good enough … I make no excuses for my actions, I only know how wrong I was in doing them.”