Survivors and witnesses of a chaotic, fatal crash in Washington two years ago relived the scenes Tuesday when they took the stand in a jury trial for the man accused of manslaughter in connection with the death of two people.
Randall Weddle, formerly of Greenville, Tennessee, was carrying a load of lumber on March 18, 2016, when he crashed into oncoming traffic on Route 17. Weddle struck three cars, sending one into field where it burst into flames.
Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren, and Paul Fowles, 74, of Owls Head died in the crash.
[Police: Truck driver in crash that killed two was drunk, speeding]
Weddle, 55, is charged with two counts of manslaughter, three counts of aggravated operating under the influence, two counts of driving to endanger and eight counts of violating various trucking rules. Weddle has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Prior to trial, Weddle’s attorneys filed motions to prevent the prosecution from introducing two blood tests and data collected from the truck’s engine control module. However, Justice William Stokes, who is presiding over the trial, denied those motions.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Baroody argued Tuesday that at the time of the crash, Weddle was ill, on prescription medication, under the influence of alcohol and “driving like a bat out of hell.” This combination of factors, Baroody said, violated the “common sense and a respect for humanity” that keep drivers safe, resulting in a “spectacular and deadly crash.”
One of Weddle’s three attorneys, Jeremy Pratt, told the jury that it’s natural to want to “point the figure” and assign blame when tragedy strikes but said there is “contradictory information” in this case that doesn’t allow it to be that simple.
[Trucker accused in fatal Maine crash barred from commercial interstate driving]
Following opening arguments Tuesday, the state called 14 witnesses, ranging from survivors of the crash to first responders and motorists who say they saw Weddle speeding on Route 17 before the crash.
Washington resident Tracy Morgan testified she was driving home from work on Route 17 to pay her children’s daycare bill late on the day of the crash. Route 17 — a long two-lane state road that connects Augusta to the coast — is a route Morgan, like many people who testified Tuesday, travels often. But Morgan never made it to her destination that evening.
Instead she found herself having to act quickly to avoid being struck by lumber that flew off Weddle’s truck as Morgan said the back part of the tractor-trailer veered into her lane. She managed to drive far into a field on the right side of the road to avoid serious injuries, but when she got out of her vehicle and turned around, she saw that other passengers weren’t so lucky.
“I had seconds to decide what to do,” Morgan said. “I remember it being really loud and then very silent.”
Morgan choked back tears as she recalled the scene. She said she saw lots of wood strewn over a vehicle that was smoking before it burst into flames, with the driver’s body still inside.
She also noticed a man in his vehicle who was struggling to lift his head. Morgan remembers telling the man to “just hang on.” That man was Tracy Cook, of Union, who survived the crash with broken bones.
Cook testified Tuesday that when he came upon the truck on Route 17, its load of lumber was dumping all over his side of the road and he knew he was in serious trouble. Like Morgan, Cook drove into the field to avoid striking the tractor-trailer.
Witnesses who were driving behind Weddle that afternoon testified that they noticed the truck traveling at a high rate of speed on the stretch of road where the speed limit is 55 mph.
Data from the truck’s engine control module allegedly shows that, at the time of the crash, Weddle was traveling at about 73 mph, according to court documents.
Several firefighters and emergency medical technicians who responded to the crash testified Tuesday recalling the chaotic state of the scene and stating they smelled alcohol on Weddle after he was extracted from his overturned cab.
According to a 2016 affidavit, Weddle told police he was feeling ill and took several medications. A blood sample taken shortly after the incident showed a blood alcohol level of 0.09. A second blood sample taken at the hospital later that evening showed a blood alcohol level of 0.073.
The defense team, including Pratt, Laura Shaw and Christopher MacLean, pushed back on the recollections of several witnesses who gave written statements a considerable time after the crash, including two EMTs who gave their written statements within the last two weeks.
The trial was scheduled to resume Wednesday morning with cross-examination of an employee of the lumber yard in Searsmont where Weddle picked up his load prior to the crash. The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
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