Tennessee truck driver charged with manslaughter offered 20-year sentence, asks judge for new attorney

Sat, 07/30/2016 - 9:45pm

ROCKLAND — The Tennessee driver of the tractor trailer truck that overturned and caused a chain-reaction crash with four vehicles, killing two people and one of the other drivers in Washington March 18, says the state has offered him a plea deal of 30 years in prison with all but 20 years suspended.

Randall J. Weddle, 54, of Greenville, Tenn., wrote a letter to Judge Susan Sparaco dated July 17 about the plea deal and also to request a new court appointed attorney.

He acknowledged the severity of the charges against him in his letter.

Weddle is being represented by David Paris, of Bath.

“I have seen him at the jail a couple of time so far. Each time we have had a lot of issues in regards to my case and how to best help me,” said Weddle, in his letter.

Weddle, who remains at the Knox County Jail, said he has been given the names of four different attorneys and asks that the court appoint one of them “to help defend me in the best possible way” as his new legal representation. They are Walt McKee of Augusta, David Sinclair of Bath, Philip Cohen of Waldoboro, and Jeremy Pratt of Camden.

Sparaco wrote July 22 that no action will be taken until the clerk sends a copy of the request to Paris and the state’s council. They both have ten days to respond, according to the court document.

Weddle was indicted by the Knox County grand jury June 8 on 15 counts including two charges of manslaughter, three counts of aggravated operating under the influence, two counts of driving to endanger, and eight rule violations, including false record of duty status, ill or fatigued operator, use of alcohol while on duty, possession of alcohol while on duty.

He pleaded not guilty to the charges in Knox County Unified Court June 22.

He is scheduled to appear again in court Aug. 25.

Weddle was arrested May 6 on warrants out of the Knox County Sheriff's Office. He was taken into custody by the Russell County Sheriff's Office in Virginia of two counts of manslaughter and two counts of aggravated criminal operating under the influence. 

According to the court documents, Weddle's bail stipulations include no third party bail allowed, including real estate. Should he be released, he will be supervised by Maine Pretrial Services. He is not allowed to operate any motor vehicles under any circumstances and not allowed to use or possess alcohol or illegal drugs. He also has to submit to random search and testing for alcohol or drugs at any time, and he is not allowed to have contact with the injured victims or the families of the deceased.

Weddle was driving a 1998 Freightliner tractor-trailer, carrying a load of lumber he had picked up in Searsmont, on March 18 when the crash occurred. He was traveling westbound on Route 17, reportedly heading back to Tennessee when he lost control of the truck, according to the investigator's report.

According to eyewitness accounts, both of the crash itself and the truck driving along Route 17, the truck was driving well above the posted 55 mph speed limit, and at least one other eastbound driver nearly missed being hit by the trailer as it crossed the center line into the eastbound lane before the crash.

That driver, Wilkes Harper, told Knox County Sheriff's Deputy Paul Spear that he "observed in his rear mirror the trailer enter the oncoming lane and roll over."

According to the accident report, 74-year-old Paul Fowles, of Owls Head was driving a 2009 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck and was the first vehicle to be struck by Weddle's tractor-trailer as it rounded a curve and the trailer began to roll. Fowles' truck went off the road and came to rest in a ditch. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The next vehicle struck was a 2014 Nissan sedan driven by 51-year-old Tracy Cook of Union. Cook's Nissan was struck by the trailer, rolled once and then struck a 2015 Kia sedan being driven by 33-year-old Tracy Morgan of Washington. Cook's Nissan ultimately came to rest back on its wheels in the field off the road, and Morgan was able to take evasive action and avoid being struck by the trailer.

Christina Torres-York, 45, of Warren, was driving a 1998 Chrysler van and was the last vehicle struck by the trailer and the load of lumber being hauled by the truck. The Chrysler was pushed back into the field, where it immediately burst into flames. Torres-York was the second person to die in the accident.

The Freightliner then rolled onto its roof and continued to slide on its roof down the road before going off the left hand side of the roadway. The Freightliner came to rest down another embankment between the road and the field.

Morgan escaped injury, as did a passenger in Weddle's truck, identified as Lowell Babb of Virginia. Cook sustained injuries in the accident, as did Weddle, who had to be extricated from the cab of the Freightliner.

In the affidavit in support of Weddles' arrest for manslaughter and criminal OUI, Spear said that members of the Maine State Police Crash Reconstruction Unit responded to assist in the investigation. He said that Specialist Michael Pion reconstructed the crash and concluded that Weddle was driving too fast, that he lost control of the trailer and that weight shift of the trailer's load of lumber caused it to flip as it entered the oncoming lane, hitting the line of oncoming traffic.

"Using a propensity to roll formula developed through scientific study, Pion calculated the speed of the tractor-trailer unit when it rolled to be 69.4 miles per hour," said Spear in the report.

A motor carrier inspector with the Maine State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit, who also responded to the crash site that evening, inspected the tractor-trailer unit and found its physical condition was not a contributing factor in the crash. But the inspector, Daniel Russell, did determine that the unit was traveling at approximately 73 mph at the beginning of the crash event, "Immediately before that, he was driving as much as 81 mph."

The continuing investigation determined that Weddle's right to operate a motor vehicle in Virginia was revoked, and his right to operate a motor vehicle was suspended in Louisiana, but that despite this he had an active Tennessee driver's license.

At the crash scene, while emergency responders were working to extricate Weddle from inside his truck, where he was pinned, a firefighter and another Knox County Sheriff's Deputy reported detecting the odor of "intoxicants" coming from Weddle's breath.

They were not able to further investigate at that time, said Spear in the affidavit, because several medical providers were treating Weddle for his injuries.

"[Knox County Sheriff's] Sgt. Matt Elwell oversaw a blood sample drawn from Mr. Weddle while was in the ambulance," said Spear in the affidavit.

That sample, and another taken at the hospital, were later analyzed for alcohol content, among other things. The sample taken in the ambulance after the crash showed .09 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, and the later sample at the hospital in Lewiston showed .073 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood.

Spear said that when Weddle was interviewed after the crash, while he was at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, he said he had been feeling ill after picking up the load of lumber and took several medications, including Lortab, which contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

Spear said in the affidavit that further analysis of the blood samples showed it in fact contained hydrocodone in a level "consistent with recent use," along with the alcohol.

Related stories:

• Tennessee lumber truck driver arrested in Washington double-fatal five-vehicle accident

• UPDATED: Warren woman confirmed as second driver killed in Washington accident


Reach Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards at hollyedwards@penbaypilot.com at 207-706-6655 and Sarah Shepherd at news@penbaypilot.com.