AUBURN — A Mechanic Falls business where a haunted hayride crash claimed the life of a 17-year-old girl two years ago pleaded guilty Tuesday to a related felony charge, bringing to a close what’s expected to be the final chapter in a long story of prosecutions connected to the incident.

Peter Bolduc Jr., principal of Harvest Hill Farm, a corporation that featured fall haunted hayrides on a half-mile course called The Gauntlet, appeared in Androscoggin County Superior Court on Tuesday morning. His attorney, Michael Whipple, entered a guilty plea on behalf of Bolduc’s business to a felony charge of driving to endanger. A manslaughter charge was dropped in exchange for that plea.

It will pay a $7,500 fine. Victims requested that $575 be paid directly and the remainder of that amount be suspended, then donated to charitable organizations, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said that before agreeing to the plea they polled the hay wagon riders who were injured the night of Oct. 11, 2014, when a Jeep pulling the wagon lost control on a steep hill on the course. The wagon smashed into a tree and flipped, spilling its 23 passengers into the woods.

Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died in the crash.

The judge heard impact statements from half a dozen of the victims or their families on Tuesday.

A statement released by the Charette family’s attorney, Jodi Nofsinger, said:

“The admission of guilt in this criminal case validates what we have known from the early stages of the investigation — that the incident at Harvest Hill Farms on Oct. 11, 2014, was not just an unavoidable accident as some have suggested. Rather, it was a tragedy that could have and should have been prevented. Cassidy Charette’s sudden passing on that night resulted from the fact that Harvest Hill Farms was knowingly operating in a negligent, unsafe manner.

“Today’s resolution goes a long way toward setting the record straight. After two years of denying responsibility, Peter Bolduc finally admits that he chose profit ahead of the safety of not only Cassidy and her friends, but of all of his patrons. Because of that choice, 17-year-old Cassidy Charette paid the ultimate price. While this admission of guilt can never bring Cass back to her family, it holds Mr. Bolduc accountable for her death. And it is our hope that it prevents a similar tragedy from ever happening to another family.”

Nofsinger also read a statement written by Cassidy Charette’s parents, Monica and Randy, from the point of view of their daughter. In it, they point out all of the life experiences Cassidy would never have, including graduation from high school, college, marriage and motherhood. 

The mother of Connor Garland, Charette’s boyfriend when the crash occurred, read a statement in the courtroom Tuesday.

Garland, who was 16 at the time, suffered a fractured jaw and back during the hayride. His jaw injury required a metal plate, five screws and seven hours of surgery to repair.

His parents clutched an enlarged photo of their son with Charette dressed in formal clothing.

His mother, Susan, said Connor has nightmares, is afraid to be alone and feels guilty for not being able to protect Charette that night.

“He was holding onto Cassidy as tight as he could and when the wagon went out of control, they separated. Connor blamed himself that he couldn’t have done more for Cass,” Susan Garland said.

“Seeing your child feel so guilty for something he had absolutely no control over is heartbreaking,” she said.

“My son should not be the one feeling responsible for this horrific accident,” she said.

Garland’s father, William, spoke directly to Bolduc, who sat with a fist against his chin.

“You say that your conscience is clear and that you drove the vehicle yourself,” Garland said. “I would suggest then that your conscience is shallow and your logic is faulty.”

He told Bolduc that there’s a significant difference between driving an old Jeep by itself around a farm and towing a trailer “far over its capacity.”

Garland said his son aspired to play baseball in the major leagues. He was courted by Division 1 colleges.

“But because profit was put ahead of safety, and because a broken back was a part of (Connor’s) injuries, his opportunity to achieve his goal was taken from him, not because of something that he did, but because of carelessness and negligence and profit margin.”

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis read a statement from Tia Sprague, a hayride victim whose back was broken in four places in the crash. She sat in the front row of the spectators’ benches.

Because of her injuries, she was not able to care for her young child nor continue with college and lost her job, she wrote. 

“Simple tasks that people take for granted every day, like showering, dressing and even getting in and out of bed were impossible for me to achieve independently,” she wrote.

Sprague, 26, continues to suffer chronic pain and dark thoughts from the crash.

She was tattooed with an inscription “always close to my heart” in honor of Charette, whom she did not know.

“On my toughest days, I think about her, the young girl who lost her life and I realize that my problems are minimal compared to the pain her death has caused so many,” Matulis read.

Joan Phillips-Sandy of Waterville read statements from two of the hayride victims, Emily Hogan and Mikhaila Necevski, both formerly of Oakland where they attended Messalonskee High School with Charette.

“I witnessed my best friend taken away from me never to see her again,” Necevski wrote.

“Sometimes I feel like my heart is breaking and I can’t breathe because of the loss I experienced. No one should have to attend their best friend’s memorial funeral at the young age of 17.

“She had so much life to experience, but that was taken away by the careless act of a corporation that should have kept children’s lives as their top priority,” Necevski wrote. “This preventable tragedy has forever altered my life. While I only sustained minor injuries physically, I will always be traumatized and hurt emotionally by the events of that night.”

Hogan wrote that she sustained a hematoma on her thigh and chronic hip and back alignment issues from the crash.

Like Necevski, Hogan said she had been a best friend of Charette’s.

“How can I explain the feelings I felt as a sat there watching the paramedics perform CPR on her for 10 minutes?” she wrote. “How can I articulate all of the hurt and pain I feel every single day knowing that her family doesn’t get to come home and see her every day?”

In addition to those whose statements were read into the record Tuesday, Sabrina Cunningham suffered a head injury, concussion, two broken ribs and two broken vertebrae and Caleb Ward sustained a head injury that resulted in neurological damage, according to prosecutors. 

Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy told the victims and their families that time should help ease their emotional and physical wounds, but she acknowledged that their lives have been “forever changed. My hope for you all is that Cassidy’s love, light and brilliance will continue to shine and help you find a path to peace and healing.”

Kennedy ordered the business to pay restitution to the victims once civil claims had been settled. A hearing date to revisit the amount owed was set for Aug. 25, 2017. 

Although Bolduc wasn’t indicted by an Androscoggin County grand jury in the crash, his business was charged — in an unusual action — with manslaughter, aggravated assault, aggravated driving to endanger and reckless conduct. Bolduc agreed to undergo a polygraph test administered by a Maine State Police detective and passed. He also cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation and presentation before the grand jury. 

Last month, prosecutors dismissed a sole charge of reckless conduct against the farm’s mechanic, Philip Theberge, 39, of Norway, who was expected to testify at the trial of Harvest Hill in exchange for immunity from prosecution. That trial had been scheduled for later this month.

At the same time the charge was dropped against Theberge, two of the four charges against Harvest Hill, including aggravated assault and reckless conduct, also were withdrawn by the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office.

David Brown, 56, of South Paris, the driver of the Jeep that pulled the hay wagon during the fatal hayride, was acquitted of a charge of misdemeanor reckless conduct after a four-day jury trial in Sagadahoc County Superior Court in Bath in September. Brown also had been injured in the crash.

Bolduc had testified at Brown’s trial that he never noticed any problems with the brakes on the Jeep, which he used around the farm as his primary vehicle.

Brown said at the trial that he experienced sudden brake failure while descending a steep hill on the hayride course; prosecutors said the Jeep’s brakes hadn’t been adequate to the task and that he should have been aware of the risk but ignored it.

The Harvest Hill trial had been scheduled to be held at Lincoln County Superior Court in Wiscasset. A judge had moved all trials related to the incident out of Androscoggin County because of pretrial publicity.

It took the grand jury three consecutive months of meeting to agree on charges against the two men and the company.

Although Tuesday’s plea brings to a close criminal cases stemming from the crash, civil court cases are ongoing.

Randy Charette, father of Cassidy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in July in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta against the company and its owner, Bolduc, claiming damages resulting from Cassidy’s death. He also sued Brown and Theberge. Bolduc had insured the business during the time it was conducting the hayrides.

The lenders who held the mortgages on the farm property foreclosed and bought back the land and buildings in July for $1 million.

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Statement of Jodi Nofsinger, attorney for the Charette family:

May it please the court; I represent the Charette family in the wrongful death lawsuit that has been filed against Peter Bolduc, Harvest Hill Farms, and its employees.

The admission of guilt in this criminal case validates what we have known from the early stages of the investigation — that the incident at Harvest Hill Farms on Oct. 11, 2014 was not just an unavoidable accident as some have suggested. Rather, it was a tragedy that could have and should have been prevented. Cassidy Charette’s sudden passing on that night resulted from the fact that Harvest Hill Farms was knowingly operating in a negligent, unsafe manner.

It is reasonable to expect that every business should have common sense measures in place to ensure children and their families are safe from preventable harm. There were simple steps that should have been taken to protect Cassidy, her friends, and everyone who reasonably assumed their safety that night at Harvest Hill Farms.

A night of innocent teenage entertainment turned to tragedy. The jeep that was used to pull this hayride was hauling more than double its towing — and therefore braking — capacity. A fact Harvest Hill Farms knew, yet chose to ignore. There is also evidence that the brakes were not functioning because they were not properly maintained. The fact remains that if they had used a properly maintained vehicle, capable of passing a State inspection like all vehicles, and were mindful of the capacity to properly tow the wagon and the people who entrusted them with their safety, this tragedy would never have happened, and Cassidy would be here today.

Today’s resolution goes a long way toward setting the record straight. After two years of denying responsibility, Peter Bolduc finally admits that he chose profit ahead of the safety of not only Cassidy and her friends, but all of his patrons. Because of that choice, 17-year-old Cassidy Charette paid the ultimate price. While this admission of guilt can never bring Cass back to her family, it holds Mr. Bolduc accountable for her death. And it is our hope that it prevents a similar tragedy from ever happening to another family.

Statement from Cassidy Charette’s family written from her point of view:

The natural order in life is the expectation that your parents will go before you, and you, as their child, will proudly carry out their legacy. I was not given that opportunity. Instead, it is my parents who are now the keeper of my light and who give me a voice here today.

I am Cassidy.

I am not “that girl in the hayride accident” you read about in the newspaper. I’m not “the victim” legislators and lawyers use in their briefings; and I’m not just the person who is notably missing in this courtroom. I cannot be reduced to words or works. My spirit is too big.

When this case is closed and others move on with their lives — I will not. I was 17 years old when my life was suddenly taken. I lived just 6,250 days. Not enough time.

Not enough time to experience my teenage rites of passage: driving friends for the first time to school; being asked to the prom; proudly playing in my last home soccer game; receiving my diploma from high school. Maybe even giving the valedictorian speech I worked so hard to achieve. I didn’t even get to see my 18th birthday.

17 years, 1 month and 11 days isn’t enough time to even take the SAT exam, let alone go to college. Not enough time to reach a dream of attending graduate school, developing a professional career or ever discovering my life’s work.

I regret never having a chance to reach my full potential to help others — which I learned early in my life was my passion and the center of my existence.

I will never get married or experience the joys and privileges of being a mother. I won’t ever be called “Mrs.” or “Aunt Cass.” I will never hear the words “I love you Mom.” And while I will always be Colby’s loving big sister, there wasn’t nearly enough time to share our lives together.

But I am not the only person whose life was taken on October 11th , 2014. My friends, only teenagers themselves, lost a piece of their lives. You took away their innocence, their sense of security, trust and hope. Many live with guilt, anger, sadness and an emptiness that can never be filled.

My family is incomplete. My bedroom is vacant. Our house, once filled with constant laughter and joy, has become silent. Gatherings are stifled with grief and our once treasured holidays together, are overshadowed by the empty chair.

My parents, who are experiencing the worst of human suffering, are broken, trying to exist in a world they no longer recognize. While my friends’ parents are sharing their family vacations and recent college visits, mine are digging deep to find the courage to get through each day. Their hearts are no longer whole.

My life on Earth is no longer and the lives of the people I loved most have been shattered by human recklessness, negligence and greed. Seemingly nothing matters, because unfortunately no amount of money, change in policy or admission of guilt can bring me back. But my hope is that this never happens again to another family, another community, or another young woman, whose promising life was just beginning.

We write our own legacy by the words we choose, the actions we take, and the love we share with each other.

Shining on,

Cass


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