Tuesday, March 11, 2014
The Maine Attorney General's Office says there is no evidence a teenage driver was texting or talking on a cellphone right before he crashed into another car on Route 4 in Berwick this spring, killing the driver of the other car.
A Facebook photo of Amy Harris.
The investigation also determined that Cameron Clair, 17, of Biddeford wasn't drinking or on drugs when his sport utility vehicle crossed the centerline and hit a station wagon driven by Amy Harris, a 34-year-old mother of two who taught at Hussey Elementary School.
A prosecutor with the Attorney General's Office on Friday charged Clair with committing a motor vehicle violation resulting in death.
The crash killed Harris and sent her two children, Abigail, 4, and Lucas, 7, to the hospital.
The charge against Clair is a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and a license suspension of between 14 days and four years. A judge can waive a portion of the fine in favor of court-ordered community service.
An investigation determined that Clair was driving a 2009 Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle south, headed for school at Berwick Academy, when he hit Harris' station wagon on April 10 just before 8 a.m.
"There was no evidence that Mr. Clair was under the influence of any substances or was distracted at the time of the crash," said a statement from the Attorney General's Office on Friday. A phone number listed for Clair's parents has been disconnected.
The Attorney General's Office was asked to oversee the investigation because Clair is the nephew of York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery.
The crash robbed the community of a beloved teacher who specialized in working with special needs children and their families. And it left Harris' family anguished.
"When something like this happens, it's like dropping a glass on the floor and it shattered and putting it together is going to take a long time," said Christine Appleby, Harris' mother.
"The loss of Amy as an individual ... a beautiful, heartwarming, giving woman ... it's not just a loss of my daughter. It's the loss of my grandchildren's mother, the loss of a teacher, the loss of my daughter's sister," she said. "It's not just as simple as the loss of a beautiful person. The ripple effect is huge."
PHONE RECORDS CHECKED
Investigators spent months trying to determine why Clair, who said he has no memory of the accident, crossed the centerline. Rumors circulated that the teenager had been texting and had even told the first rescue workers that he had been texting when they arrived. "That's not true," Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said. "We checked his phone records."
The accident reconstruction also found he was not going exceptionally fast or doing anything that would justify a charge of criminal negligence.
Motorists who were driving behind Clair told police he drifted across the centerline once, came back into the southbound lane, then drifted over again, leading to the crash, Stokes said. He said prosecutors have no way of knowing what was going on in the car at the time.
Alan Lebrun, 53, of Sanford, was driving one car ahead of Harris that morning when he swerved to avoid Clair's oncoming vehicle, he said.
Lebrun was driving home at 7:48 a.m. in his 2008 silver Kia after working his third shift job at the Sheraton in Portsmouth, N.H. He was going 55 mph, the speed limit, on a straight stretch of Route 4 near the South Berwick town line when the car ahead of him suddenly swerved, he said. That drew his attention to a black sport utility vehicle that was drifting into his lane.
"It wasn't a swerve kind of thing," Lebrun said of the oncoming vehicle. "He didn't even look like he knew he was coming in our lane. It just looked like he was still coming right at me. I thought for sure he was going to hit me."
Lebrun swerved right, with no time to sound his horn.
"Honestly, I didn't even see the person. I just saw the front of his car," Lebrun said. "From what I saw, he wasn't trying to turn to get out of the way."
Lebrun's vehicle careened down an embankment, slid between a utility pole and a wrought-iron fence, then came back up the hill and he was able to drive back onto the road. It was only then that he realized there had been a crash behind him.
Harris, driving north in the family's 2006 Ford Freestyle station wagon, did not have enough time to get out of the way of the oncoming vehicle and they collided head-on.
By the time Lebrun got out of his car, many motorists on the busy morning commute had stopped to call for help or check on the occupants of the two cars. One person asked for a towel, saying someone was bleeding from the head.
Lebrun said he started toward the wreckage of the two vehicles, but then held back. He was too far away to see how badly anyone was hurt and couldn't hear anyone crying.
"I didn't really want to go and see what could have been the outcome. I didn't really want that in my head," he said. Lebrun said he would have checked on them if so many other people had not already been there to help.
Lebrun said he is at a loss to explain why the sport utility vehicle crossed into his lane.
"It just seemed to me he either fell asleep or something, or somebody having a heart attack and losing complete control," Lebrun said. "Whoever it was, he just wasn't conscious of where they were headed."
PROBE TOOK LONGER THAN USUAL
Stokes said the investigation took longer than usual because prosecutors wanted to thoroughly explore all angles of the case to help mute any suggestion that Clair's relationship to Slattery could have influenced the case, he said.
Stokes said investigators found nothing to indicate that Clair might have fallen asleep at the wheel. He had worked out on the school crew team the day before and done his homework that night before going to bed, Stokes said.
The charge of a motor vehicle infraction resulting in death was incorporated into the law in 2009 for situations in which the motorist at fault was not criminally negligent, which might support a charge of manslaughter, but did violate a traffic law that led directly to someone's death, Stokes said.
Appleby said the decision to bring a civil charge, not criminal, left her and Harris' friends wondering whether Clair's relationship to the county district attorney played a role, and the delays in bringing charges didn't dissolve those suspicions.
"There is a very angry community out there that no charges had been filed against this boy," Appleby said. "Myself, emotionally, I couldn't go to those places because it wasn't helping me at all."
"Part of me feels like everybody makes mistakes," she said, adding that although it is difficult to accept that the teenager's mistake caused her daughter's death, she understands how things like that could happen to someone.
"As a parent, you're looking in the rearview mirror at the kids fighting, ... someone's looking at the tape deck, changing a station," she said. "That can happen."
Appleby said there needs to be accountability, but equally important, an understanding of what was lost.
"When I'm feeling centered and grounded and I'm thinking clearly, I feel very badly for the young man," she said. "He has to live with this for the rest of his life."
At Harris' funeral, her family played a video that captured a sense of why she was so loved, Appleby said.
"If I were to go give punishment, it would be to watch that with her family," she said, her voice growing softer and intermingling with crying. "Just to know the reality of what he did, what he took away."
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: