Gabriel Lovell

Ashland man faces manslaughter charges in Merlin crash

A man who initially claimed he was not involved in a crash near the Merlin freeway interchange that killed his fiancee and a friend was arraigned Wednesday on two counts of first-degree manslaughter.

Gabriel Wesley Lovell, 42, of Ashland also is charged in Josephine Circuit Court with two counts of failure to perform the duties of a driver to injured persons, a form of hit-and-run. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

The charges stem from a crash the night of Jan. 8 that occurred when a 1998 Ford F-150 pickup truck struck a semi-trailer parked on the shoulder of Highland Avenue near the Merlin Interstate 5 interchange just north of Grants Pass.

Police found two bodies in the truck: Megan Becklund, a 32-year-old Grants Pass artist and mother of two, and Jeremy Pearson, a 36-year-old resident of Ashland.

The case was something of a whodunit, at least initially — Becklund was belted in the front passenger seat, while Pearson was found lying unbelted across the rear seat. It appeared highly probable an unknown driver had fled the scene.

According to court records in the case, investigators with Oregon State Police quickly homed in on Lovell, who had been out drinking with Becklund and Pearson earlier that evening at a restaurant in Merlin.

With no witnesses to the crash, Lovell wasn't arrested for nearly two weeks. He eventually turned himself in. Police say he gave a full confession.

According to an affidavit that was part of a search warrant in the case, while troopers combed the wreckage for evidence of the driver's identity, dispatchers received two anonymous phone tips advising them that the pickup truck belonged to Becklund.

Within hours, detectives went to her Grants Pass home, where they encountered Lovell smoking a cigarette out on the deck. Detective Travis Lee reported that when Lovell was notified of Becklund's death, "Gabriel appeared to be upset by hanging his head down and putting his hand over his face."

Investigators, however, observed that although Lovell continued to hang his head, there were no tears on his face. They thought Lovell smelled like he had been drinking, and they noticed he had dried blood on his hands.

Lee reported that during their interview with Lovell, they could hear a clothes dryer in operation and asked to be shown the laundry room. A pair of khaki pants that appeared to be bloodstained were found in the dryer. Blood-soaked receipts and a $5 bill were drying in a nearby paint pan.

The affidavit revealed that Lovell claimed he'd been worried about Becklund and had been searching for her. He produced his phone, which had a record of several texts Lovell said he'd made to Becklund and others in an effort to locate her.

Upon further questioning, Lovell told the officers that he'd hired a taxi to take him back to Baldini's Restaurant in Merlin, where he, Becklund and Pearson had been drinking that evening.

Lovell said he returned to Grants Pass sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. He claimed Becklund and Pearson had intended to return to Baldini's after they dropped him off. When he couldn't get them to answer his calls or texts, he called a cab.

The cab driver confirmed that she picked up a man from the home at around 10:30 p.m. She provided the officers several odd details about her passenger: He had spots of blood on his khaki pants, he insisted she take the longer Highland Avenue route to Baldini's rather than using the freeway, and when they drove past the crash scene, he kept his eyes on his phone.

Investigators decided not to make an immediate arrest, instead building a forensic case against Lovell.

On Jan. 13, five days after the crash, Lovell's attorney, Amy Margolis, of Portland, called investigators to inform them Lovell wished to confess. On Jan. 22, exactly two weeks after the accident, Lovell gave a statement confessing he had been drinking and was behind the wheel when the truck sideswiped the trailer.

He told investigators he falsified a call log and message thread on his cellphone that night to support his alibi, then fled the scene of the crash on foot before summoning a taxi to "search" for Becklund and his vehicle.

On Wednesday, Margolis seemed ready to have her client enter a guilty plea, but Pro Tem Judge Lore Rutz-Burri told the Portland lawyer, "We usually set formal sentencing a few weeks out."

Under Measure 11, first-degree manslaughter carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. The defendant's next court date, possibly to enter a plea, is scheduled for March 15.

A half-dozen of Becklund's family and friends attended the hearing Wednesday. Becklund's mother, Erva Zabel, 61, of Grants Pass, emphatically declined to speak to the Daily Courier. A tearful friend of Becklund's attempted to provide a brief statement but was cut off and silenced by Zabel.

Lovell has been out on $100,000 bail since Jan. 25.

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