Vermont State Police say they have a video as evidence of a teenage girl driving a truck across the double yellow line on U.S. 7 in Charlotte and crashing head-on into a car killing an elderly Ferrisburgh couple two months ago.
The driver, Isabel Jennifer Seward, 16, who comes from a prominent Atlanta, Ga. family, also has provided conflicting stories about her cell phone leading up to and after the crash near Church Hill Road about 4:05 p.m. Sept. 8, according to state police in its preliminary crash report.
The second driver, Chet Hawkins, 73, died at the UVM Medical Center Hospital about five hours after the crash. His wife, Connie Hawkins, 72, died instantly at the scene of the grinding crash. Both deaths were due to blunt trauma to the head, body and extremities, Vermont's Chief Medical Examiner reported.
The northbound truck driven by Seward and the southbound car operated by Hawkins were both fully in the southbound lane during the collision, troopers said. Police said earlier it appeared Hawkins had steered right toward the breakdown lane to avoid the encroaching truck.
Vermont State Police said one eyewitness, Evan Plankey, reported his northbound vehicle was equipped with a dashboard camera and he was behind the Toyota Tacoma that Seward was driving. Plankey allowed state troopers to download the dash camera footage that captured the entire incident, police said.
“The footage clearly shows Vehicle #1 leaving its lane of travel, continue traveling north in the southbound lane of US Route 7, before colliding head-on with Vehicle #2. There did not appear to be any attempt by Vehicle #1 to correct its course prior to the crash,” Trooper Nate Quealy wrote in his preliminary crash report.
Plankey said Vehicle 1, operated by Seward, made a sudden 45 degree turn into the oncoming lane and struck Vehicle 2 driven by Hawkins, the police report noted.
The area speed limit is 50 mph and Seward estimated for police she was driving at 56 mph, the report said. The two northbound lanes are wide and head gradually uphill, but they turn slightly left toward the top of the incline with picturesque views of Lake Champlain and the mountains in Vermont and New York. There is one southbound lane for the nearly two-mile stretch.
No known court charges have been filed by Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George’s office. Also, no known civil traffic tickets have been issued by state police.
The VSP Crash Reconstruction Team, led by Trooper T.J. Howard, is working on the final report with additional details, including measurements, statements and more, police said.
According to the preliminary independent VSP investigation, Seward, who had minor injuries, provided multiple stories. State police said they include:
-- Trooper Brad Miller noted Seward indicated her cellphone was face down on the passenger seat and she had both hands on the steering wheel at the time of the crash. After the crash Seward said she grabbed the cellphone off the passenger seat with her bag and also the camera that was on her lap. Seward said she was headed from her grandparents’ house in Vergennes to Burlington to buy a lens cap for her camera.
Miller said Seward later repeated the cellphone was on the passenger seat face down and still there when the crash happened. Seward stated she grabbed her bag before exiting the truck. Miller said he saw the bag with Seward’s wallet was still on the passenger floorboard in the truck.
-- Charlotte Rescue personnel reported Seward indicated she had been texting before the crash, but not during the crash.
-- Police said Seward’s mother, Laura Dickerman, at the hospital indicated she had asked her daughter about cellphone use and Seward reported the cellphone had been in her bag. The 2009 Toyota was registered to Dr. Joseph Dickerman of Charlotte, records show.
Seward is the daughter of William J. Seward, a longtime high-ranking executive with UPS, according to his LinkedIn profile. Jessica Seward, a high school junior, goes to a private independent school, Paideia, in Atlanta and plays on at least two varsity teams -- basketball and volleyball.
The case is in the hands of George, the county prosecutor, who has declined to discuss the crash, including Wednesday during an interview.
If criminal charges for the two deaths are warranted, George could take the case to adult court, where proceedings are public and Seward could face prison if convicted; or George could send the case to Family Court, where juvenile proceedings are in secret and Seward could face a possible fine, community service or other non-jail action.
Vermont closed its only juvenile jail in Essex earlier this year.
George and one of her deputy prosecutors was bothered that Vermont State Police identified Seward as the licensed teen driver in the double fatal crash.
State police said they were initially told by George’s office to withhold the teen’s name, but two days later after further legal review the department made Seward’s name public.
That upset George’s office. In a series of emails, made available through a Vermont Public Records request, Deputy State’s Attorney Lucas M. Collins said he was unhappy with state police.
Collins expressed his dismay with state police in an email to Burlington lawyer Brooks McArthur, who is representing the teen. McArthur then suggested they reach out to Rosemary Gretkowski, a lawyer with the Vermont Public Safety Department.
Gretkowski had the public state police news release with Seward’s name removed from the department's website, Collins later wrote.
George wrote back to Collins, “Unbelievable – why on earth would VSP not have contacted their freakin general counsel BEFORE releasing the name!??!”
State Police have said they relied on the department's transparency policy and several legal opinions, including from both the Department of Motor Vehicles and ex-Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, who is a former U.S. Attorney for Vermont and the United States.
Also the Vermont Constitution, the Vermont Public Records Law and the rules of the Vermont Judiciary all side with transparency for public records.
Names of licensed drivers operating on public highways or have been involved in public crashes with the resulting public safety agencies – police, fire and rescue – responding have always been considered public record in Vermont. So are the names of all drivers – no matter the age -- that are ticketed for offenses on public highways.
Under new Vermont legislation in July, prosecutors are directed to send cases involving juveniles initially to Family Court, except for the most serious crimes. Once the case is at Family Court, the State's Attorney is free to move it to adult criminal court, but needs to state the reason for the move is "in the interest of justice."
State police never said in either news release whether any kind of court action was planned.
Seward had 72 hours to file her official accident report with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV said this week — nine weeks after the crash – Seward’s written report had not been received in Montpelier.
McArthur offered a no comment when reached at work on Wednesday.
Collins, the deputy prosecutor, noted Seward’s name had been used both in Vermont newspapers and TV, but he did not have a full list of media outlets. “Not sure if more did, but it’ll come up in Google for a long time,” he wrote to Sarah George.
At one point it sounded like Collins wanted court action taken against state police. The release "wasn't inadvertent -- they think they are allowed to," he wrote.
“It seems to me that this press release discloses the contents of a protected juvenile record. I’m not sure what the best recourse is at this point, but I would like to do something about it. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss this, let me know,” Collins said in an email to McArthur with a copy to his boss, Sarah George.
George said Wednesday nothing more happened, and she was not interested in getting in a fight with Vermont State Police.
Meanwhile the Hawkins family and their friends await answers and justice.
The couple left a son, Charles of Ferrisburgh, and a daughter Cynthia Payne of Vergennes, along with two grandsons, three great grandchildren and nieces, nephews, an aunt, various in-laws and others. The family has retained Rutland lawyer Shannon A. Bertrand of Facey, Goss & McPhee and referred questions to him.
"Charlie and Cindy are dismayed over the death of their parents," Bertrand said Wednesday. He said it was premature to offer more comments.
Chet Hawkins spent 35 years as a municipal official in Ferrisburgh, wearing many hats in the Addison County town of about 2,700 people. The jobs included town clerk and treasurer, zoning administrator, first constable, collector of delinquent taxes and school district treasurer.
The Vermont General Assembly honored Hawkins for what it said was “his 35 years of exemplary public service” when he retired in 2014.
The resolution noted Hawkins was “always willing to go the extra mile to fulfill his legal and ethical municipal government obligations.” It was introduced by then-Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh and Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes.
Hawkins and his wife, who were married nearly 55 years, were both graduates of Vergennes High School.
Connie was a longtime bookkeeper and helped raise their two children. Chet was a founding member of the Champlain Valley Street Rodders Club, a love he shared with his wife.
He was employed at Simmonds Precision in Vergennes for many years and he also worked at Hawkins Garage a well-known tractor dealer in the center of town.