Truck driver sentenced to 25 years in prison following Route 17 crash

A Tennessee truck driver involved in a crash that killed two people in March 2016 was found guilty of manslaughter after a five-day trial. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison March 23. Justice William Stokes imposed a full sentence of 30 years in prison on Randall Weddle with all but 25 years suspended and four years of probation. Weddle was found guilty by a Knox County jury Jan. 30 on all 15 charges, including two counts of manslaughter, three counts of aggravated operating under the influence, two counts of driving to endanger and eight counts of violating various commercial vehicle violations. The five-day trial of Weddle, 55, formerly of Greenville, Tennessee, began Jan. 23 with jury deliberations beginning on the afternoon of Jan. 29 and concluding the following morning. The trial included testimony from survivors and witnesses to the chain-reaction crash that involved four vehicles. Justice William Stokes presided over the trial. The maximum sentence for a manslaughter conviction is 30 years. The state had initially offered Weddle a plea deal of 30 years in prison with all but 20 years suspended, which he rejected. He has remained at the Knox County Jail since he was arrested in May 2016. District Attorney Jonathan Liberman prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Jeff Baroody. Weddle was represented by attorneys Christopher MacLean, Jeremy Pratt and Laura Shaw, all of Camden. Weddle was driving a 1998 Freightliner tractor-trailer, carrying a load of lumber he had picked up in Searsmont, on March 18, 2016, when the crash occurred. He was traveling west on Route 17, reportedly heading back to Tennessee, when he lost control of the truck. According to eyewitness accounts recorded at the courthouse, both of the crash itself and the truck driving along Route 17, the truck was driving above the posted 55 mph speed limit, and at least one other eastbound driver nearly missed being hit by the trailer as it crossed the center line into the eastbound lane before the crash. That driver, Wilkes Harper, told Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Spear that he “observed in his rear mirror the trailer enter the oncoming lane and roll over.” According to the accident report, 74-year-old Paul Fowles, of Owls Head, was driving a 2009 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck and was the first vehicle to be struck by Weddle’s tractor-trailer as it rounded a curve and the trailer began to roll. Fowles’ truck went off the road and came to rest in a ditch. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The next vehicle struck was a 2014 Nissan sedan driven by 51-year-old Tracy Cook, of Union. Cook’s Nissan was struck by the trailer, rolled once and then struck a 2015 Kia sedan being driven by 33-year-old Tracy Morgan, of Washington. Cook’s Nissan ultimately came to rest back on its wheels in the field off the road, and Morgan was able to take evasive action and avoid being struck by the trailer. Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren, was driving a 1998 Chrysler van and was the last vehicle struck by the trailer and the load of lumber being hauled by the truck. The Chrysler was pushed back into the field, where it immediately burst into flames. Torres-York was the second person to die in the accident. The Freightliner then rolled onto its roof and continued to slide on its roof down the road before going off the left hand side of the roadway. It came to rest down another embankment between the road and the field. Morgan escaped injury, as did a passenger in Weddle’s truck, identified as Lowell Babb of Virginia. Cook sustained injuries in the accident, as did Weddle, who had to be extricated from the cab of the Freightliner. In the affidavit in support of Weddle’s arrest for manslaughter and criminal OUI, Spear said that members of the Maine State Police Crash Reconstruction Unit responded to assist in the investigation. He said that Specialist Michael Pion reconstructed the crash and concluded that Weddle was driving too fast, that he lost control of the trailer and that weight shift of the trailer’s load of lumber caused it to flip as it entered the oncoming lane, hitting the line of oncoming traffic.” Using a propensity to roll formula, Pion calculated the speed of the tractor-trailer unit when it rolled to be 69.4 miles per hour, said Spear, in the report. A motor carrier inspector with the Maine State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit, who also responded to the crash site that evening, inspected the tractor-trailer unit and found its physical condition was not a contributing factor in the crash. But the inspector, Daniel Russell, did determine that the unit was traveling at approximately 73 mph at the beginning of the crash event, “Immediately before that, he was driving as much as 81 mph.” The continuing investigation determined that Weddle’s right to operate a motor vehicle in Virginia was revoked, and his right to operate a motor vehicle was suspended in Louisiana; however, he had an active Tennessee driver’s license. At the crash scene, while emergency responders were working to extricate Weddle from inside his truck, where he was pinned, a firefighter and another Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy reported detecting the odor of “intoxicants” coming from Weddle’s breath. They were not able to further investigate at that time, said Spear in the affidavit, because several medical providers were treating Weddle for his injuries. [Knox County Sheriff’s] Sgt. Matt Elwell oversaw a blood sample drawn from Mr. Weddle while was in the ambulance, said Spear in the affidavit. That sample, and another taken at the hospital, were later analyzed for alcohol content. The sample taken in the ambulance after the crash showed .09 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, and the later sample at the hospital in Lewiston showed .073 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. Spear said that when Weddle was interviewed after the crash, while he was at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, he said he had been feeling ill after picking up the load of lumber and took several medications, including Lortab, which contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone. Spear said in the affidavit that further analysis of the blood samples showed it in fact contained hydrocodone in a level “consistent with recent use,” along with the alcohol. In July 2017, there was a hearing on the defense’s motion to suppress statements made by Weddle following the fatal crash. The motion states that statements he made to law enforcement officers after the fatal crash were made without a reading of his Miranda rights. Also, statements made by him while he was at Central Maine Medical Center were involuntary, according to the documents filed in Knox County Unified Court. The judge ruled that the evidence was admissible at the trial.

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