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Dump-truck driver on trial in fatal crash on W.Va. 9

May 26, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg.@herald-mail.com

The trial started with a request that jurors close their eyes.

The eight women and four men hearing the case involving Brian W. Strobridge, a dump-truck driver charged with causing a wreck that led to three deaths, obliged and Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely told them to envision a hot, gorgeous July day.

A nurse was driving her car along W.Va. 9, east of Martinsburg that day. Behind her were two young men in a Jeep Wrangler, having a good time, maybe waving at passing cars, Games-Neely said.

"Suddenly," she said, banging her hand loudly on a wooden lectern, "there's a crash."

And another. And another. And another, she said.

Then she told jurors to open their eyes.

That's what happened on July 10, 2002, when Strobridge's empty dump truck hit several cars on the bridge that crosses Opequon Creek, Games-Neely said in her opening statement.

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Strobridge, 39, is charged with three counts of driving under the influence of cocaine causing death, two counts of DUI causing injury and several traffic offenses. The charges were filed after Strobridge's urine sample tested positive for cocaine, officials have alleged.

Killed in the crash were Marion Rao, 51, of Martinsburg; Carleton Wilcox, 20, of Charles Town, a passenger in the Jeep; and Terry Lee Walker Jr., 17, of Leetown, W.Va., the driver of the Jeep.

Strobridge's trial started Tuesday, with the morning spent selecting a jury.

Witnesses testify


After a lunch break, jurors heard testimony from 14 witnesses, including eight who saw the dump truck before the crash or witnessed or were involved in the wreck.

Ronald Boyd, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., testified that he followed the dump truck from W.Va. 9 in Charles Town, W.Va., to Kearneysville, W.Va.

"Immediately it was erratic in its movement," he said, adding that the truck nearly hit a tree and crossed into the opposite lane of traffic seven times, forcing cars off the road.

By the time Boyd made it to a phone and called 911, he was told the truck already had been involved in a wreck, he said.

Patrick Laughner, who works at the U.S. Coast Guard facility near the wreck site, testified that he saw the dump truck hit a passenger car head-on. Rao was the driver of that car.

Laughner said the dump truck was swerving and that he remembers thinking the truck was going too fast.

After the truck hit Rao's car, Laughner stopped, put on his flashers and checked on Rao. He heard but did not see the dump truck hit several other cars, he said.

Laughner said he ran past a crumpled body in the road and was told to look for the Jeep. He said he peered over the bridge's railing, thinking the Jeep had gone into the creek below.

Then Strobridge yelled that the Jeep was underneath his dump truck and Laughner said he then saw a piece of the red Wrangler sticking out from below the truck, he testified.

Wilcox, a passenger in the Jeep, died after he was thrown from the vehicle. Walker, the driver of the Jeep, also was killed. His body was trapped in the wreckage for several hours.

Dawn Harder testified that she had just left a day-care center in Martinsburg when the dump truck hit the side of her Toyota Corolla. Although she has forced herself to drive since, she refuses to drive on W.Va. 9, she said.

Emotional testimony came from Peter Reiff, whose car was the last one hit. He halted his testimony a couple of times to wipe his eyes and said he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Jeep driven by Walker was hit twice, he said. After the first impact it was lifted off the ground, thrown a few feet into the air and then started spinning, which is when Wilcox was thrown from the Jeep, he said. It was then hit again, he said.

Once all of the cars came to rest and he realized he was not badly injured, Reiff ran to what was left of the Jeep, he testified. He saw part of Walker's body in the wreckage, but knowing he could not help, he ran to Wilcox and saw he also was dead, he said.

Reiff, who is trained in first aid, testified that he then ran to Rao's car and found she was breathing and had a pulse. Reiff testified that he retrieved a first aid kit from his car, but said Rao's pulse was gone when he returned and tried to pull her from her car.

A 'horrific accident'


Cpl. Willie Johnson, an investigator with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, was called to the wreck site to do an accident reconstruction, he said.

"It looked like a bomb went off on the bridge," he testified. "It was a pretty horrific accident."

There were no brake marks on the road from the dump truck, he said.

On cross-examination by Robert Stone, Strobridge's attorney, Johnson said Strobridge did not appear to be intoxicated that day.

Because he was driving a commercial vehicle involved in a wreck, Strobridge was taken to City Hospital for a drug test, as required by federal law, said Public Service Commission Officer John Skaggs.

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