Two-day trial continues for driver charged in 2018 firefighter death

Updated: Sep. 30, 2020 at 10:11 AM EDT
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HANOVER CO., Va. (WWBT) - The trial of a Maryland man accused of recklessly driving in rough weather conditions causing his tractor-trailer to crash into the back of a Hanover County fire engine, killing a firefighter, began Tuesday.

Lt. Brad Clark, 43, of Mechanicsville, and a 13-year veteran with the agency, was killed in the crash on Oct. 11, 2018, during Tropical Storm Michael.

Clark and his colleagues were responding to a two-vehicle accident on I-295 near exit 38 when the secondary crash happened around 9:09 p.m.

Virginia State Police charged Lester Labarge, 51, with reckless driving and cited him for defective brakes. Labarge was further indicted by the Hanover Circuit Court on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving.

In the expected two-day bench trial, the Hanover County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, Stephen Royalty, is expected to call several members of the Hanover County Fire & EMS agency.

On Tuesday, Labarge was formally arraigned, pleading not guilty to his two charges. If convicted, he could serve up to 11 years in prison.

During opening statements Royalty began by saying this case is a matter of Labarge “throwing caution to the wind” both literally and figuratively. Royalty said the Commonwealth’s Attorney plans to present evidence which shows Labarge engaged in a series of actions of criminal negligence which include:

  • A two-hour phone conversation with another trucker
  • Towing a trailer with a faulty break line
  • Traveling on a road that received more than four inches of rain
  • Traveling 60-65 miles per hour in rough weather conditions

Labarge’s defense attorney, Ted Bruns, opened by saying, “sometimes accidents are accidents” and not all deserve criminal culpability.

Bruns stated Labarge left Springfield, VA around 7 p.m. and was headed to pick up a load in Chester when the crash happened. He advised the court through witness testimony he will prove to the court “speed was not an issue”; rather at the time of the crash, Labarge was traveling 46/47 miles per hour.

Of the nine witnesses called during the first day of trial, five were members of the Hanover Fire & EMS agency.

A forensic meteorologist was called to the stand to testify about weather conditions the night of Oct. 11, 2018.

Around 7:14 p.m., a wind advisory went into effect until 4 a.m. showing a high wind warning for sustained wind speeds of 25-35 mph with gusts up to 60 mph in Hanover County.

“[Driving] in cars and on the road is the most dangerous place to be [during this weather],” the meteorologist testified.

Data he collected shows Richmond International Airport logged 3.69 inches of rain through the evening up until 9 p.m.; Hanover County airport logged 4.63 inches of rain.

The meteorologist testified winds were around 25-35 mph in Hanover with gusts up to 40 mph. He added, while the rain may have tapered off during the 8-9 p.m. hour, the winds were still hazardous for travel.

The first Hanover firefighter to testify was Colin Bunn, a medic who typically works at another station, but was moved to help Medic 6 the night of the accident.

Bunn testified seeing two tractor-trailers pass by his EMS vehicle while on I-295. He said they were traveling faster than he was going at 45 mph, which caused him concern.

Shortly after one of the tractor-trailers passed him, Bunn testified he saw the 18-wheeler hydroplane, and then the trailer turn perpendicular to the roadway; the tractor-trailer eventually crashed into Engine 6 parked on the shoulder of the highway with the end of the engine in the far left lane of the road.

Bunn said it took roughly three seconds from when the 18-wheeler started to hydroplane when it crashed into the fire engine.

Captain David Johnston with Hanover Fire & EMS also testified about his recollection that night.

Johnston was responding to the initial accident scene in Engine 10 when he saw two tractor-trailers traveling at a fast speed getting on to I-295.

“I told my driver they must have a deadline,” Johnston said.

The firefighters in Johnston’s engine arrived on scene shortly after the secondary crash and found Clark pinned under the front tires. Several men had to reverse the engine in order to pull Clark free.

All three firefighters in Engine 6 testified Tuesday, including Christopher Elish, Carter Lewis and David Johnson.

Elish recalled arriving on scene at the initial call, grabbing his gear to treat the patients, only to hear Clark say, “You’ve gotta be kidding me”. He testified he saw Clark go pale “like something bad was going to happen”; Elish turned around to see the 18-wheeler headed their way.

The firefighter, who has been with the agency for 2.5 years, said he hopped back in the fire engine and braced for the impact. He recalled it feeling like an earthquake with tools and other items flying around inside.

He added the only warning he received about the 18-wheeler heading their way was from Clark.

Carter Lewis was another member of Engine 6 to take the stand Tuesday. Lewis had been with the group for a few months and Oct. 11, 2018, was his first day in the field.

Lewis testified about the rough weather conditions on the ride to the accident scene, hearing Clark tell the driver of the fire engine to “take it easy”.

Upon arriving at the scene, Lewis testified Clark told the group to watch out, and “keep their wits about them”. However, seconds later he heard Clark yell something which was inaudible. As Lewis was making his way to the first crash scene, he said he was hit by something and went unconscious; he woke up 10-20 seconds later in the first lane of the highway near the left shoulder.

The final member of the Engine 6 crew to take the stand was the driver, Dave Johnson. Johnson testified he left Hanover Fire & EMS in April 2020 and has fleeting memories of getting hit in the crash.

“Ears popping, bright lights, and then black,” Johnson testified.

The final witness on Tuesday was Dr. Jennifer Bowers, the Assistant Chief Medical Examiner.

Bowers testified about Clark’s autopsy conducted the morning of Oct. 12, 2018.

According to Bowers' testimony, Clark suffered multiple external and internal injuries leading to his cause of death as blunt force trauma to the torso.

On Wednesday, additional members of the Hanover Fire & EMS agency are expected to be called to the stand. This includes a firefighter who Royalty and Bruns had to have a private conversation about with the judge in her chambers.

Royalty was made aware of this man’s presence during the trial as other witness testimony was being given. All witnesses, except for two experts, were sequestered in another room.

The man said he was there to support the Clark family during the trial. No motions were made regarding this matter.

Labarge’s defense attorney is also expected to call witnesses Wednesday, with Labarge expected to take the stand himself.

Court is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Following Lt. Clark’s death, Virginia’s Move Over Law was toughened by increasing the fine if drivers do not move over when they see emergency vehicles.

Some of those fines include potential jail time and loss of a license if someone is killed or property is significantly damaged.

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