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Strobridge guilty in fatal crash

May 27, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Hugs, handshakes and tears filled a courtroom Wednesday after jurors found a dump-truck driver guilty of driving under the influence of cocaine and causing a crash that killed three people and injured two others.

Brian W. Strobridge, 39, shook his head slightly after a clerk read aloud the first guilty verdict and then stood emotionless as the rest of the verdict was read.

Jurors found Strobridge guilty of three felony counts of DUI causing death, two counts of DUI causing injury and misdemeanor counts of driving left of center, reckless driving and failure to drive in a single lane.

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The jury, which deliberated for about two hours and 25 minutes, found Strobridge innocent of speeding.

Strobridge's empty dump truck hit several cars on W.Va. 9 east of Martinsburg on July 10, 2002. Killed in the wreck were Marion Rao, 51, of Martinsburg; Terry Lee Walker Jr., 17, of Leetown, W.Va.; and Carleton Wilcox, 20, of Charles Town, W.Va.

"I'm just so glad it went to trial," said Walker's mother, Margaret.

Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes rejected a plea bargain last month that would have enabled Strobridge to plead guilty to three misdemeanor counts of negligent homicide. Wilkes said the plea bargain was inappropriate because victims and family members of the deceased victims wanted the case to go to trial.

Jurors, eight women and four men, had the option of finding Strobridge guilty of three counts of negligent homicide instead of the DUI causing death charges, but did not.

The verdicts came despite a consistent argument from Robert Stone, Strobridge's attorney, that his client was not under the influence when the crash happened.

Richard J. McGarry, an expert forensic toxicologist who testified on behalf of Strobridge, said a urine sample provided by Strobridge tested positive for a cocaine metabolite, not cocaine itself.

A metabolite, an inactive substance, is what a drug like cocaine is converted to so a person's body can dispose of it. Because the metabolite was in Strobridge's urine, it meant his body was about to get rid of it.

"It has no effect (on a person's behavior) whatsoever," McGarry said.

Other than showing 888 nanograms per milliliter of the metabolite were found in Strobridge's urine, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely did not call any witnesses to say how that level of the substance might hinder a person's ability to function.

Given the lack of scientific evidence, Games-Neely said the case is likely not over.

"It's going to be a real difficult appeal," she said.

Stone left the courtroom without making a statement and could not be reached for comment after the verdict was announced.

After the verdict was read, family members hugged each other or shook hands. Strobridge was led out a few minutes later in handcuffs to a waiting police cruiser. He appeared to ignore a group of hecklers yelling comments, including "crack cocaine killer."

During her closing argument, Games-Neely showed jurors close-up pictures of the wreckage, including two graphic photographs that depicted an unrecognizable Jeep Wrangler crushed under the dump truck. Wilcox was ejected from the Jeep and Walker's body was trapped inside it for several hours.

Rao, the third person killed, was driving a separate car.

"This is a crash of unparalleled violence. Unparalleled violence," Games-Neely told jurors.

She pointed out that the dump truck left no brake marks and that Strobridge's erratic driving before the crash, which was witnessed by several people, was evidence of him being under the influence.

"He murdered those three people," she said. "No one, who is not impaired, drives like this."

Testimony Wednesday included that of a fellow inmate of Strobridge's at Eastern Regional Jail. Kelvin Salgado said Strobridge told him he used cocaine the night before the wreck and had taken Xanax and OxyContin that day.

Others, including police officers who had been with Strobridge on the day of the wreck, testified he did not appear to be under the influence of drugs.

Strobridge did not testify.

Two brothers who work at Jefferson Asphalt in Charles Town said Strobridge delivered loads of asphalt and stone for them. Both John Thomas and James Thomas said they had a brief conversation with Strobridge between 4 and 4:15 p.m. and that he appeared normal. The wreck happened around 4:45 p.m.

Wilkes is scheduled to sentence Strobridge on July 9. Conviction of a charge of DUI causing death carries a sentence of one to 10 years in prison.

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