AUBURN — The corporate owner of the farm where a haunted hayride crashed two years ago, killing an Oakland teenager and injuring more than 20 other people, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of driving to endanger.

The crash occurred in October 2014 when the brakes on a 1979 CJ-5 Jeep pulling the hayride at a Mechanic Falls farm failed and the wagon plummeted down a steep gravel path. When it struck a tree and overturned, Cassidy Charette, 17, was killed and a number of passengers were injured, including Charette’s boyfriend, Connor Garland.

Connor’s parents, Sue and William Garland of Belgrade, were at the hearing Tuesday in Androscoggin County Superior Court. Sue Garland wore a gray T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Charette’s face and the words “Shine on Cass.” She held a photo of Connor and Cassidy together and, toward the end, was allowed to make comments at a lectern near the front of the large courtroom.

“Not only did we lose (Charette) on Oct. 11, we also lost a part of our child, 16-year-old Connor Garland,” Sue Garland said, choking back tears and directing her remarks at Peter Bolduc, the owner of Harvest Hill Farms and its parent corporation, who was sitting at the defense table.

“We have a son who we’ve had to watch and try to deal with the (effects) of this accident,” she said. “The nightmares, the being afraid to be alone, feeling responsible for Cassidy flying out of the wagon. Connor doesn’t have a lot of memory from this night, but what he does have will haunt him forever.”

After recounting her son’s injuries that night, including a shattered jaw and broken back, Sue Garland continued, “My son should not be the one feeling responsible for this horrific accident.”

As part of the plea agreement between Androscoggin County prosecutors and the parent corporation of Harvest Hill Farms – the farm where the fatal crash occurred – the corporation will pay a fine of $7,500 for the single count of driving to endanger, all but $575 of which will go to charity, prosecutor Andrew Matulis said.

Family members of those injured in the hayride agreed to the terms of the plea, Matulis said.

Bolduc was not charged criminally in connection with the 2014 crash. He stayed seated and showed little emotion during the hearing, but did return eye contact with several people who made remarks, including the Garlands.

Several other people attended Tuesday’s hearing on behalf of people on the hayride that night, including an attorney for the Charette family and another attorney there on behalf of two women injured in the crash.

A grand jury originally indicted Bolduc’s corporation on three additional counts of manslaughter, aggravated assault and reckless conduct, but prosecutors have dismissed those charges.

Though criminal proceedings related to the crash have ended, Charette’s family has named Bolduc, Harvest Hill Farms and several other entities in a wrongful death lawsuit.

During the hearing Tuesday, the family’s attorney, Jodi Nofsinger of Berman & Simmons, said that this week’s guilty plea offered further evidence that Harvest Hill Farms’ management could have taken more safeguards.

“Today’s resolution goes a long way toward setting the record straight,” Nofsinger said, reading from prepared remarks.

“After two years of denying responsibility, Peter Bolduc finally admits that he chose profit ahead of the safety of not only Cassidy and her friends but all of his patrons,” she said. “Because of that choice, 17-year-old Cassidy Charette paid the ultimate price. While this admission of guilt can never bring Cassie back to her family, it holds Mr. Bolduc accountable for her death, and it is our hope that it prevents a similar tragedy from ever happening to another family.”

After the hearing, Bolduc sought out Nofsinger to offer to meet with the victims, The Associated Press reported. With his eyes welling up with tears, he said he couldn’t fathom what the victims and their families have gone through.

But he also objected to the characterization that he was knowingly jeopardizing patrons by neglecting safety.

“I unequivocally would never jeopardize safety for profit. Wouldn’t do it. My wife and children were on the same rides. We worked as a family, and my family was out on those rides,” he told the AP.

Since the crash, Charette’s family has pushed for stricter regulation of commercial wagon rides offered around the state, but a task force convened by the state ultimately determined it does not have the resources to regulate such activity. The family also has raised money in Charette’s name for charitable causes.

On Tuesday, Nofsinger read a separate statement written by Cassidy Charette’s mother, Monica, from Cassidy’s perspective that was meant to convey what the Oakland girl might have wanted people to know.

“I am Cassidy,” Nofsinger said. “I am not that girl in the hayride accident you read about in the newspaper. I’m not the victim legislators and lawyers use in their briefings and I’m not just the person who is notably missing in this courtroom. I cannot be reduced to words or works. My spirit is too big.”

Michael Whipple, the attorney for Bolduc’s corporation, agreed to the $7,500 fine sought by prosecutors during Tuesday’s hearing.

All but $575 of that amount – the minimum fine for driving to endanger – will go to charities that have yet to be identified, Matulis said. Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy also agreed to schedule a restitution hearing for the corporation in August.

Two men have been cleared of criminal charges in connection with the fatal hayride accident, but they also have been named in the Charettes’ civil lawsuit.

In October, prosecutors dropped a charge of reckless conduct against Philip Theberge, 39, of Norway, a mechanic who worked at Harvest Hill Farms at the time of the hayride crash. In September, a Sagadahoc County jury acquitted the driver of the Jeep pulling the hayride, David Brown, 56, of South Paris, of a misdemeanor charge of reckless conduct.

On Tuesday, Matulis described the evidence he would have presented if Bolduc’s corporation had gone to trial. Many of the witnesses he intended to call – including investigators from the Maine State Police and the State Fire Marshal’s Office and people who worked at Harvest Hill Farms – also spoke during Brown’s trial. Matulis said prosecutors also would have called someone from the company that manufactured the wagon to testify that it was meant to be pulled by tractors, not a Jeep.

The jury acquitted Brown after he argued that he was unaware of any mechanical problems with the Jeep and that the crash was caused by unexpected brake failure.

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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