(This story was first published in the November 14, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Eric Francis, Standard Correspondent
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Despite entreaties by the mother of the victim to essentially let the matter drop, the legal process moved inexorably forward this week against a Woodstock man who was allegedly drunk behind the wheel and speeding on Aug. 18 in the moments before his pickup truck flipped in West Woodstock, claiming the life of his best friend who had been riding beside him in the passenger seat.
Justin Pierce, 22, appeared in a courtroom in downtown White River Junction Tuesday morning accompanied by his parents, where he entered innocent pleas to two felony counts: drunk driving, first offense with a fatality resulting, and gross negligent operation of a vehicle with a fatality resulting. Together the charges carry a maximum potential penalty of up to 30 years in prison and/or fines of up to $25,000 in the event of a conviction.
As part of his conditions of pre-trial release Pierce was ordered by the court not to consume any alcohol while his case is pending and to only drive during the daytime “for verifiable work purposes.”
In a recent interview with The Standard, Nancy Ferrero explained that she had urged prosecutors not to file charges against Pierce in the wake of her son Jonathan’s death, saying that she felt he had not acted maliciously in the tragedy which claimed the life of a young man who was not only Pierce’s best friend but also his sister’s fiancé.
Speaking to reporters in the courtroom Tuesday, Windsor County Deputy State’s Attorney David Cahill said that while he was open to considering community input and character evidence in any case, the process moves in discrete steps and he was therefore focused on the “guilt or innocence phase” of the proceedings.
Police reports filed with the court this week included statements from two of the men’s teenage friends who had been following right behind them in another pickup truck that Sunday afternoon as the pair left Walpole, N.H. and drove back to Woodstock in a celebratory mood after their team had just won the Connecticut River Valley Baseball League championship.
Kyle Pearsons, 18, and Kyle Longley, 17, of Pomfret had been watching Pierce and Ferrero’s winning performance earlier in the afternoon and were right behind them on Fletcher Hill Road when they reached the Peterkin Hill intersection and crossed a small bridge there.
Pearsons told police that Pierce was driving a bit too fast and “rolled through onto Peterkin with a heavy foot on the gas pedal,” Woodstock Police Sgt. Peter Mantello wrote in his affidavit.
During his interview Longley told police that they’d lost sight of Pierce’s pickup and had just “caught up to Justin” in time for him to see the truck flip onto its side and land in a stream beside the roadway. Although the teens were “in shock,” Pearsons got out to help while Longley took their truck further down the road in search of help.
Several nearby residents who heard the guardrail being peeled back and the subsequent crash down into the brook quickly reached the scene and Woodstock Constable Penny Davis, EMT Bill Luth, and Sgt. Mantello were the first emergency personnel to arrive.
Mantello wrote that as he and others were tending to Pierce awaiting the ambulance as his friend’s body lay next to them in the overturned pickup truck, “Pierce’s mood swings were dramatic and erratic” punctuated by “sharp cries of pain (caused by injuries) in his shoulder and neck,” Mantello recalled, “He intermittently screamed out the passenger’s name, ‘Johnny!,’ while I was attempting to keep him from moving.”
Mantello said there was “a very strong odor of intoxicating alcohol” coming from both Pierce and the truck in general, which he described as strewn with more than two dozen Budweiser cans along with several hand tools, baseball gloves and bats.
The final report from Vermont’s Chief Medical Examiner determined that Ferrero, who had not been wearing his seatbelt, died within moments of the impact. Toxicology tests showed that he had alcohol and marijuana in his system.
Police recovered a piece of the pickup truck known as the Airbag Control Module and sent it to a lab in order to have its data recorder downloaded. Sgt. Mantello said the results showed that Pierce impacted the guardrail beside the road at 50 mph in the seconds before the airborne truck slammed back to the ground.
Mantello said that during an interview with Pierce conducted in October, after test results on blood samples taken from Pierce at the hospital led crime lab technicians to estimate his blood alcohol level at the time of the crash at approximately 0.161 percent (legal limit is 0.08). Pierce acknowledged that he’d had “four or five beers” following the ball game that afternoon.
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