At 5:40 p.m. on September 7th, 2017, Amelia Markarian from Mammoth Lakes drifted into the oncoming lane while driving north on Highway 395 and struck the vehicle of Christopher David Harper.
Markarian was airlifted from the site of the accident, 400 yards north of the Topaz Fire Station, to a hospital.
Harper died on impact. He was 45 years old. He was driving south from the home in Smith Valley that he and his wife Rhonda had just closed the sale on, to their temporary home in Coleville. His wife was driving a separate car with their daughter, Mackenzie.
Markarian was arrested the day after the accident for manslaughter. She admitted to her arresting officer, Damon Huffer, that she had consumed alcohol earlier the day of the accident. When she found out that the other driver in the accident had passed away, she said, “Then I don’t deserve to live.”
Markarian plead no contest to the charge of manslaughter. On Thursday, January 17th, 2019, Mono County Superior Court held a sentencing hearing for Markarian. Judge Stan Eller (who is in the process of retiring) did not sentence the defendant on Thursday. He’s expected to sentence Markarian on Friday morning. The sentences for manslaughter are either 4, 6 or 11 years of prison time.
The amount of alcohol that Markarian consumed that day was under dispute during Thursday’s hearing. One account said that it was around 375ml of Maker’s Mark whiskey.
This was Markarian’s second DUI. She was convicted of a DUI in 2008 when she tried to make a U-Turn on a freeway in Nevada. The state sentenced her to take a class on safe driving, and she signed a pledge saying that she understood the repercussions of her actions.
Chris Harper served 24 years in the Navy. He retired as Chief Petty Officer just nine months before the accident.
During the last two years of his career in the Navy, Harper was the Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor for the USS Carl Vinson. In this role, he helped those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. He was five years sober at the time of the accident.
When Chris retired from the Navy, the Harpers moved from San Diego to the Eastern Sierra.
The Harpers purchased their home in Smith Valley two hours before the accident. Rhonda has since found the home an unbearable reminder of her husband’s passing, and has moved to Ohio.
Mono County Deputy District Attorney Todd Graham represented the prosecution in this case. “The only message I’d like people to take away from this case,” Graham said, “is how dangerous it can be. If you even suspect that you shouldn’t be driving, call a friend, call an Uber. In an instant your life and the life of another can be changed.”
“There is no excuse.”
Amelia Markarian was represented by Scott Spindel, an attorney based in Encino, CA who specializes in criminal and DUI defense.
The first half of the hearing was spent interviewing witnesses, including forensic toxicologists, and officers involved in the case. The defense was attempting to undermine the certainty of Markarian’s blood alcohol level in an attempt to mitigate her sentence. The second half of the hearing saw Harper’s widow, friends, and members of his church, the Smith Valley Baptist Church, tell their stories of Chris. Many called for Judge Eller to commit the maximum possible sentence for Amelia Markarian.