James Speidel pleads guilty in April 24 incident involving severed gas line

Sitting morosely near his car after consuming a lethal combination of Grey Goose vodka and Tylenol gel caps, for James Speidel, it could have all ended right there on an isolated side street off Old Germantown Road.

Instead, the Washington County sheriff’s deputies who found him and transported him to the hospital on April 24, likely saved his life. Now, after pleading guilty to attempting to blow up the Bethany house containing his wife and four children — ages 3 to 9 — by creating a natural gas leak, Speidel will spend the next 20 years of it in prison.

The former Nike executive pleaded guilty last week in Washington County Circuit Court — less than two weeks before his trial was set to begin — to five counts of attempted aggravated murder. In his plea deal, Speidel, 37, avoids serving what could have been 10 years for each potential victim, said Washington County Deputy District Attorney Bracken McKey.

Planned destruction

The prosecutor outlined Speidel’s plot to blow up his family during the Oct. 24 sentencing hearing. Among the chilling revelations were that Speidel searched the Internet in early April on topics related to natural gas-fueled arson and explosions.

“He planned on triggering an explosion,” McKey said on Monday. “He watched YouTube videos on explosions on his iPhone. He engaged in Google searches on how to do an arson explosion. His intent was to blow up the house.”

On April 24, one day after the Speidel family returned from a family vacation, Speidel’s wife, Laura, called Northwest Natural gas to report a “very strong odor” of gas around 7:20 a.m. A NW Natural technician turned off the gas and advised her to call the sheriff’s office.

As McKey detailed in court, James Speidel, before leaving early for work that morning, cut the line to an outdoor barbecue grill and redirected it under the house. Turning up the thermostat to 74 degrees and heading off to work, Speidel knew it was a matter of time before the gas furnace’s flame connected with flow from the open gas line and sparked an explosion.

“It was intentional, premeditated,” McKey said. “He made us believe he was trying to kill his family.”

Quick thinking

Fortunately for the family, one of Speidel’s children awakened his mother, telling Laura the house smelled like the “Autopia ride at Disneyland.” At first dismissing the report, the mother sprang into action when her son came back a second time. She called NW Natural gas, gathered the pajama-clad children and moved across the street to the safety of a neighbor’s house.

When the technician discovered the grill line cut and redirected, he asked Laura Speidel to call the sheriff’s office. She also called her husband at work, where Laura detected a note of surprise in his voice. Returning home briefly, James Speidel left again, saying he had to get back to work.

Instead, he drove to an access road off Germantown Road and — presumably in a suicide attempt — ingested the combination of vodka and pain relievers. He also spoke with his wife on his iPhone, telling her — as a sheriff’s deputy stood by her back at the house — “I just wanted you and the kids to disappear,” McKey reported.

Using Speidel’s cellphone signal as a locator, deputies found him near his car and took him to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Speidel reportedly scrawled, “I’m sorry” on the white board in the room.

While defense attorney Conor Huseby portrayed his client as a loving father with insurmountable psychological disorders, and filing a notice of insanity defense, the evaluation doctors performed on behalf of the prosecution — along with Speidel’s early admissions to guilt — ultimately invalidated the claim, McKey said.

Just outcome

McKey said it was Speidel’s intention to collect $300,000 from his wife’s life insurance policy once she and the children were out of the way.

“They were having marital problems, had discussed divorce and were in counseling,” he said. “It was reasonable inference to me that (Speidel) very selfishly made a decision to end lives, and collect the $300,000 insurance policy rather than have a division of their assets.”

The plea agreement was based on factors including the wishes of the victims, the aggravated nature of the crimes and the amount of time he could potentially serve.

“We thought this would be a just result,” McKey said, adding the family is “doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances and asking that their privacy be respected.”

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