BATH — David Brown of South Paris, who drove the Jeep in a fatal hayride accident at Harvest Hill Farm, was found not guilty of reckless conduct by a Sagadahoc County Superior Court jury Tuesday after 2½ hours of deliberation.

Brown and his Lewiston attorney, Allan Lobozzo, said the victory was bittersweet, given the tragic hayride in Mechanic Falls that brought Brown to court.

Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died in the crash the night of Oct. 17, 2014. She and 22 other passengers were riding on The Guantlet haunted hayride through the woods when the Jeep that Brown, 56, was driving went out of control. The trailer struck a tree and turned over, spilling its passengers into the woods. Most of the trailer’s other occupants were injured, some seriously. The Jeep also struck a tree, injuring Brown.

“There is relief,” Lobozzo said of the trial’s outcome, but, “speaking for my client, there’s no real joy.” 

Lobozzo said he knew going into trial “we had a strong shot” at an acquittal.

He said he hoped the jury viewed his client as someone who was interested in the haunted hayride and had a “passion for the event. He cared about the passengers, he cared about the farm. He was doing it out of the goodness of his heart and the thought of hurting anyone was the farthest thing from his mind.”

Lobozzo said he believed common sense prevailed among jurors: “Why would a man throw care to the winds in a situation like this when he had friends, family and colleagues’ children, potentially, in the wagon behind him?”

“There’s no winners here,” Brown told the Sun Journal minutes after the verdict. “There’s no victory celebration going on.”

The only thing he could have done differently that night was to stay home, he said, but there was nothing he could do otherwise to prevent the crash.

“The hardest part is living with the fact that we lost a young girl that I never knew and never will know,” he said. “I see her picture all the time and I can close my eyes and see her and I don’t know what I can ever say or do for her family to make it any different.”

He said at some point he would “like to be able to reach out to the family — they probably don’t care who I am or how I feel.”

Brown, the father of five and a grandfather, said the tragedy was “a parent’s worst nightmare.”

He said he’s been seeing a counselor to help him cope with the emotions and memories of the event and will continue to.

“I’ve been carrying this around for two years,” he said.

Brown said he now has “reservations” about driving. “I don’t know where I’m going from here.”

“I couldn’t bring myself to plead guilty to something I wasn’t guilty of,” he said, despite an offer from prosecutors of a sentence of community service.

“I’m man enough to man up if I’ve done something wrong,” he said.

Had Brown been convicted at trial of reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, he would have faced up to 364 days in jail.

He said he feels bad for the family that owned Harvest Hill Farm.

Peter Bolduc Jr., who testified for the defense at trial, gave Brown a job when there were no local jobs to be had and it enabled him to be at home every night with his family, Brown said.

“The Bolduc family is like family to me,” he said. “I can’t imagine the loss that they’ve suffered,” both financially and emotionally.

“It’s been tough for all of them,” he said.

Attorneys rested their cases and summed up their arguments Tuesday morning. Just before noon, the judge sent the jury out to deliberate whether Brown acted recklessly that night.

Deputy District Attorney James Andrews had argued the structural integrity of the Jeep was “suspect” and likened it to a “play thing,” or a “go-kart to get around the farm with.”

He said it was “never designed to do this kind of thing,” pulling a hay wagon loaded with people.

The brakes had been compromised long before that fatal ride, he said. The brake pedal only had one inch of compression, the emergency brake was broken, the rear brakes didn’t work and the fluid for the front brakes had been diluted with water.

The hay wagon loaded with nearly two dozen passengers exceeded the towing capacity of the Jeep if it had been in good condition, he said. But the 1979 Jeep also had extensive rust damage to the body and frame, and hadn’t been inspected since 2004.

Brown chose to use the Jeep that night instead of a tractor, which would have had a lower gear to use on steep downgrades, Andrews said.

Although Brown daily checked the fluid levels of the recycling truck he drove professionally for the owner of Harvest Hill Farm, he never checked the levels of the fluids on the Jeep he drove that night, Andrews said.

“All of the evidence would suggest to you the fact that a reasonable person in Mr. Brown’s position should have recognized that these surrounding circumstances and his conduct created a risk. He should have known,” Andrews said. “And he ignored that risk.”

Andrews said Brown knew the brakes were “soft” before the crash and had remarked as much to a fellow worker at the farm. He also knew the wagon was overloaded and mentioned it before hauling the load anyway.

“Eventually, that risk catches up with you and that’s what happened,” Andrews said.

Quoting an engineering professor who testified for the defense, Andrews said it was “the perfect storm” of elements that led to the crash and hadn’t been difficult to forecast. Brown should have seen it coming, Andrews said. “He could see it coming. We know that from his own statements.”

Allan Lobozzo, Brown’s attorney, said that same professor said that Brown had no control over any of those elements and was, therefore, not responsible for the storm.

Lobozzo referred to the 1991 so-called “perfect storm,” on which a book by the same name is based, in which a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is lost at sea because of a rogue wave.

“There’s no way they could have anticipated the elements,” he said.

“It’s an apt comparison,” he said.

Likewise, “Mr. Brown could not have anticipated all of the forces that came together that night.”

Lobozzo said passing comments about loads and brakes unfairly assume great importance in the aftermath of an accident,

Brown’s remarks to a co-worker likely were intended as theater, not genuine concern.

Lobozzo said the law requires that Brown’s conduct was a “gross deviation from the standard of care of a reasonable person. I would suggest the evidence contradicts that conclusion. That the evidence irrefutably points to a not guilty verdict.”

Although Maine has no laws regulating farm hayrides, prosecutors decided there should have been in hindsight and prosecuted a man for “violating a standard that doesn’t exist.”

Because there are no laws that regulate hayrides, Lobozzo said the jury should consider the physics and engineering involved in the crash.

The engineers agreed that had the Jeep been fully functional, it could have executed a hill twice as steep as the one Brown descended that night while pulling a trailer with hay bales and 23 people.

Even with only the front brakes working, it should have been able to pull that load down the actual pitch at the slow speeds the Jeep traveled, according to both engineers who testified, Lobozzo said.

While prosecutors attribute Brown’s problems with his brakes that night as a cumulative effect, made worse by the driver riding the brakes downhill, Lobozzo said the testimony at trial points to sudden and complete brake failure.

Jodi Nofsinger of Berman & Simmons, who represents the Cassidy Charette family in a wrongful death civil suit filed against Brown, farm mechanic Philip Theberge and Harvest Hill Farm, said in a written statement “We’re thankful for the hard work of District Attorney Andrew Robinson and Assistant District Attorney Jim Andrews, as well as the judge and jury that heard the case. We knew it could go either way. We’re disappointed with the outcome, but it has absolutely no bearing on the civil case.”

Nofsinger said, “Our focus remains on the civil lawsuit, which is separate from the criminal case. ‘Not guilty’ in a criminal case does not mean ‘not responsible’ in the civil justice system. The proof necessary to find a person guilty of a crime is very different than to hold him responsible in a civil lawsuit for failing to follow basic safety rules. From the information we already have about the hayride tragedy, we believe our wrongful death case is strong and that all the defendants will be held accountable.”

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 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.

Brown said Tuesday he hadn’t been subpoenaed to testify at either trial.

Andrews said after the verdict that prosecutors believed they had a “strong case” against Brown. He said he would “reassess” the other two hayride-related cases, but expects them to go forward as planned.

“I really do see them as having individual strengths and weaknesses,” he said. 

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