BURLINGTON — State prosecutors rested their case Thursday against a driver charged with the deaths of five Mad River Valley teens in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 89 in Williston on Oct. 8, 2016.
Williston Police Officer Eric Shepard testified in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington about unsuccessfully trying to free four of the teens trapped in the demolished 2004 Volkswagen Jetta, and having no luck with his small fire extinguisher trying to smother the flames.
He said all four doors of the wrecked car were either locked or would not open.
“I desperately tried,” the 10-year veteran told the jury about trying to free the four teens and yelling at them as the flames moved from the engine area into the passenger compartment.
“Get out. Get out. Get out of the car,” said Shepard, who burned his hand trying to open the doors.
Shepard was the 28th and final witness the prosecution called to the stand over four days in an effort to prove its case against Steven D. Bourgoin, 38, of Williston.
Before Bourgoin’s lawyers, Robert Katims and Sara Puls, call any of their witnesses Friday morning, the defense is expected to seek a dismissal of the charges — a predictable motion in homicide cases whenever the state rests.
Bourgoin has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts of second degree murder after he slammed his truck head-on into the Volkswagen Jetta while he was speeding northbound in the southbound lane. Bourgoin also had multiple drugs in his system at the time of the accident, according to authorities.
The defense maintains Bourgoin was insane at the time of the crash. Katims has said Bourgoin, a Rutland High School graduate, suffered from depression for many years and was both delusional and psychotic in the days leading up to the crash.
Bourgoin was in a custody fight with his former girlfriend over their daughter. He was facing foreclosure and quit his job at Lake Champlain Chocolates two days before the crash with no job in sight, Katims said.
Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury; Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; and Cyrus Zschau, 16, of Moretown were trapped in the car, state police said. Mary Harris, 16, of Moretown, was ejected through a sun roof as the Volkswagen went off I-89 and rolled into the median, police said.
They are all believed to have died almost instantly from blunt force trauma, according to testimony.
Hale would have turned 19 years old on Thursday.
After the crash, Bourgoin stole Shepard’s police cruiser and headed south, but reversed direction when he saw a Richmond Police cruiser parked in a U-turn near exit 11 in Richmond.
Shepard testified that after the police cruiser crashed into his wrecked truck in the middle of the road, he watched the defendant sail out the driver’s window.
“It was a rather eerie experience,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before and hope not to see it again."
Shepard said he checked the cruiser to ensure nobody else was in it and then arrested Bourgoin at gunpoint.
He identified both still pictures and his dash cam video from the crash. He pointed out that as he headed with a fire extinguisher down into the median to try to rescue the teens, Bourgoin was headed the other way. The video shows Bourgoin picked up his speed as he hurried past Shepard and the dashboard camera. Seconds later the police cruiser began moving.
Seconds later, Shepard is overheard on the radio asking who had his car, with his voice raising.
He said he told Williston Police Sgt. Brian Claffy, the second officer to arrive at the scene, to continue after the missing cruiser.
Shepard said the town of Williston received an insurance settlement of $59,053 for the demolished cruiser, including contents.
The state used 17 civilian witnesses — most were at the crash site — nine police officers, a medical examiner and a chemist for its primary case. State’s Attorney Sarah George and one of her deputies, Susan Hardin, are expected to call some rebuttal witnesses once the defense has completed its case.
The only other witness on Thursday was former Vermont State Police Cpl. Michael Sorensen, who helped with the crash reconstruction.
Sorensen, based out of Windham and Windsor counties for much of his 29-year career, said he had an interest in motor vehicle crashes and the department sent him for specialized accident training.
He said he was asked to join the investigation on Oct. 14, 2016, and to reconstruct the first accident. He said based on his training and information collected, it appeared that Bourgoin was driving at an estimated 78 miles per hour, while the Volkswagen, driven by Zschau, had slowed to 33 miles per hour.
Sorensen said some data could be retrieved from Bourgoin’s truck, but nothing was available from the VW. The point of impact on the Volkswagen was more on the right front at a slight angle, said Sorensen, who estimated that he spent in excess of 200 hours reconstructing the crash.
If convicted, Bourgoin faces 20 years to life for each homicide. If found not guilty by reason of insanity, the court will send Bourgoin for a mental examination to determine if he needs to live in some kind of facility or can reside in the community with possible court-imposed restrictions.
Bourgoin also has denied two other counts of misconduct after the initial crash: misdemeanor charges of aggravated operation without consent and reckless driving.
A panel of 10 women and six man is hearing testimony. The final jury of 12 will be selected once all the evidence is heard and closing arguments are made.