UPDATE: Jury finds driver not guilty in fatal haunted hayride accident

BATH — The driver of a Jeep pulling the trailer in a fatal haunted hayride two years ago testified at his trial Monday that he lost his brakes on a hill and thought he would die.

David Brown, 56, of South Paris was injured. Cassidy Charette, a 17-year-old high school student from Oakland, died from injuries she suffered in the Oct. 11, 2014, crash on The Gauntlet at Harvest Hill Farm on Route 26 in Mechanic Falls. Most of the other 23 passengers on the hay wagon were hurt when it hit a tree and rolled onto its side.

Brown took the stand on the third day of his trial in Sagadahoc County Superior Court. He told a jury that the brakes on the Jeep he chose to drive over the half-mile course through the woods had worked well the first three times he drove the 20-minute loop that night.

“I didn’t have a soft pedal, not at all,” he said. “I had plenty of brakes.”

He said the brake pedal had three or four inches of resistance in it, much more than the one inch as testified by the Maine State Police inspector whose job it was to perform a vehicle autopsy after the crash.

It was during Brown’s fourth run through the course that he arrived at the top of the hill, near a haunting station called The Iron Works, that he said his “foot went right to the floor. I tried pumping the brakes two or three times and nothing was happening.”

He said he tried changing the gears of the Jeep’s automatic transmission into park, then reverse, but the rig was “picking up speed.”

He didn’t know how fast he was traveling, he said.

“I thought I was dead,” he said. “I was surprised I woke up.”

A professional driver for many years, Brown said he has experienced complete brake loss before.

“It’s not pretty at all,” he said. “It’s really scary.”

Brown said he had known that the emergency (parking) brake didn’t work on the Jeep.

“I regret that,” he said.

But Brown said the brakes had worked earlier that night along the haunted hayride route as well as the night before and the previous weekend.

Androscoggin County Deputy District Attorney James Andrews asked Brown how the brakes could have failed completely that night, but then work afterward when the Jeep was towed from the scene to a secure location and operated by Maine State Police.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “I wish I knew. I really do. If I knew, I’d tell you.”

Brown had told investigators a brake line or hose must have let go. But the inspector, after fully examining the Jeep, didn’t find a “catastrophic” event such as that had occurred.

That inspector, David York, testified earlier at trial that the rear brakes had been inoperable, but the front brakes had worked, though marginally.

Asked whether he thought the inspector would have been lying during his testimony, Brown first said, “Yes, I do,” but quickly said he wasn’t calling the inspector a liar.

Brown said he had driven a tractor to pull the wagons loaded with hay bales and passengers around the course during earlier years. He chose the Jeep in 2014 because of the way it looked, he said. He owned a similar Jeep of the same model about a decade newer and was comfortable driving it. It had good visibility with no top or windshield to obscure his vision, he said.

Brown said he had asked Harvest Hill Farm owner Peter Bolduc Jr. what to do should he lose his brakes. Bolduc, who used the Jeep as his primary vehicle around the farm, had told Brown to “put it in the ditch.”

Under cross-examination, Brown said he had been only joking with Bolduc by making that remark and hadn’t uttered it because he was concerned about the brakes.

A witness who testified earlier at trial said Brown had told her while she was a passenger in the Jeep riding The Gauntlet course with him that the brakes were “soft.” Brown didn’t remember making the comment but said he likely would have said that in an effort to frighten the woman because all of the people who worked on The Gauntlet were supposed to try to scare the passengers.

Brown told Andrews he would ride the brakes on the Jeep while descending the hill where the crash occurred.

Prosecutors believe that the crash was the result of the brakes becoming ineffective after continuous braking because they had already been compromised due to water diluting the brake fluid in the front brakes and air in the rear brake lines.

Two workers on The Gauntlet who dressed in costume at the Iron Works station that year testified Monday that moments before the crash, they heard a noise — one said it was a clunk; the other, a pop — then heard Brown exclaim: “Oh s—-!” as the rig picked up speed down the hill.

Defense attorney Allan Lobozzo established through the testimony of several witnesses Monday that Brown worked only as a driver and had no mechanical duties at the farm. He worked for Bolduc at his recycling business, driving a truck, he said.

Brown had noticed the night before the crash that the Jeep had been running too rich and mentioned it to Bolduc, who had the problem fixed by the next night, Brown said. Had there been brake problems, he would’t have hesitated to raise the subject, he said.

A nurse who was at the scene for the haunted hayride that night testified Monday that she attended to Brown after the crash.

Lying on the ground, his eyes closed, he told her: “I lost my brakes,” she said.

Bolduc testified Monday that he used the Jeep to pull the hayride passengers on the advice of one of his mechanics. He had used the Jeep on the road until the body became too rusted, he said.

Earlier in the year, Bolduc had a fuel tank and a brake line replaced on the Jeep.

He said he had done a trial run around The Gauntlet with the Jeep pulling a trailer loaded with round bales of hay before later pulling passengers with it.

“It did well,” he said.

Bolduc said he never noticed any problems with the Jeep’s brakes, noting they weren’t “spongy” or “soft.”

Had any mechanical problems developed with the Jeep that couldn’t be repaired quickly, Bolduc said he would have “immediately put it down.” He said he had a tractor and flatbed trailer on standby for such a circumstance.

Bolduc said his family, including his wife and four children, worked at the farm and might be on a haunted hayride trailer at any given time. He said he would never knowingly jeopardize their safety.

After examining the crash reconstruction reports and walking The Gauntlet course, Per Erik Garder, an engineering professor at the University of Maine in Orono, said Monday that the Jeep could have managed the load that night. But, on cross-examination, said there was a “very small margin” for error and that the load was “close to the limit.”

Although Mechanic Falls is in Androscoggin County, the trial was moved to Bath by Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy because of pretrial publicity.

The trial for farm mechanic Philip Theberge, 39, of Norway, is expected to be held at Lincoln County Superior Court in Wiscasset in December. He, like Brown, is charged with misdemeanor reckless conduct.

Harvest Hill Farm, the business, faces criminal charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, driving to endanger and reckless conduct. That trial is scheduled for November in Wiscasset.

Bolduc, owner of the farm and The Gauntlet ride, was not indicted on criminal charges stemming from the crash.

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