BURLINGTON — Five Central Vermont teens killed in a fiery two-vehicle crash on Interstate 89 in Williston 2½ years ago died from blunt force trauma, the state’s deputy chief medical examiner told a Vermont Superior Court jury Wednesday.
Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury; Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; Mary Harris, 16, of Moretown; and Cyrus Zschau, 16, of Moretown are believed to have died almost instantly in the crash about 11:55 p.m. Oct. 8, 2016.
Dr. Elizabeth Bundock offered the testimony on Day 3 of the criminal trial of Steven D. Bourgoin, 38, of Williston.
Bourgoin has pleaded not guilty to five counts of second-degree murder for showing wanton disregard toward the teens by speeding and driving the wrong way on I-89. He also had drugs in his system, records show.
The doctor said she ruled the deaths homicides. There was no evidence that the victims took any significant breaths after their car caught fire. Four were pinned in the 2004 Volkswagen Jetta, while Harris was ejected — possibly through the sunroof.
Now retired State Police Detective Sgt. Matthew Denis, who was assigned to the medical examiner’s office until January, testified that dental and medical records are normally needed during autopsies to help identify burned victims.
Denis said he made a decision to have the Volkswagen Jetta loaded onto a truck and brought to the State Police barracks in Williston so he could supervise the removal of the four victims still in the wrecked car. He said Harris, who was ejected from the car, and found in the grass in the median was removed by a funeral home.
Denis identified the five teenagers by name. Denis said Zschau was driving and Cozzi was believed in the front seat. Hale was behind the driver, Harris was in the center and Brookens was in the right rear, Denis said.
Testimony during the morning confirmed that Bourgoin was behind the wheel of the 2012 Toyota Tacoma that crashed into the Volkswagen. State Police Detective Sgt. Aimee Nolan, a member of the crime scene search team, testified about her examination of the truck and removing the deployed airbags for DNA tests. She also took photographs of the truck, including seven that were introduced into evidence.
The veteran criminal investigator said she earlier had been called in on Oct. 9, 2016, to help with interviews from witnesses from the crash scene.
Joseph Abraham, a chemist with the Vermont Forensic Laboratory, testified that the DNA taken from the airbag matched Bourgoin.
Defense lawyers Robert Katims and Sara Puls continued to refrain from asking questions about the crash. Katims had said in his opening statement that there is no dispute that Bourgoin was driving when he crashed into the teens and when he later jumped into a Williston Police cruiser and drove off, only to make a U-turn and return to crash into his truck on I-89.
The defense maintains Bourgoin, a Rutland High School graduate, had suffered from depression for many years and was psychotic and delusional. He thought he was seeing lights and hearing music that was directing his movements, Katims said. Bourgoin thought he was on a government mission.
The court plans to conduct only a half day of testimony on Thursday, and the state is expected to present Williston Police Officer Eric Shepard and retired State Police Cpl. Mike Sorensen, a crash reconstruction investigator.
The defense could begin its case sometime Friday. A large part of its case is expected to focus on two experts — one hired by the prosecution and one by the defense — that both agree Bourgoin was insane.
The state hopes to counter any of that testimony about insanity by calling rebuttal witnesses after the defense ends its case.
Also testifying Wednesday morning were Washington County Senior Deputy Sheriff Jim Wells and his wife, Maureen Shannon-Wells, who is a state probation officer from Calais.
They testified as more than a half dozen other earlier witnesses about coming onto the crash site. Shannon-Wells said when the stolen Williston Police cruiser returned to the scene, “it came flying by me.”
She said she ran into the woods and thought she had died.
Wells said as a deputy sheriff he went to try to help Shepard, the first officer at the scene. Wells said Shepard was unable to get the doors of the Volkswagen open.
“It was too hot,” Wells said. Shepard yelled to the teens to unlock the doors, but nothing happened, Wells said. He said the flames engulfed the car. “It was getting unsafe.”
He said a decision was made to move Harris, who had been ejected and was nearby in the grass.
Wells said he later heard Shepard yelling repeatedly for everybody to get off I-89. Earlier testimony indicated that the stolen Williston cruiser had made a U-turn and was headed back to the original crash scene at 100 mph.
Wells said when he heard the crash, he believed the worst had happened.
“I thought a dozen people were dead,” Wells said, adding he found his wife hiding in the woods.
After Shepard arrested Bourgoin at gunpoint and had him in the grassy median, Wells said he was standing nearby assisting State Trooper Bradley Miller. He said Bourgoin attempted to get up and Miller asked for help restraining Bourgoin.
Wells said he was treated for smoke inhalation at Central Vermont Medical Center after clearing from the crash site.
The final witness Wednesday was State Police Sgt. Owen D. Ballinger, the crash reconstruction team leader. He outlined the official findings of the two crashes, including that it was a near head-on contact between Bourgoin’s truck and the Volkswagen with the students.
If convicted Bourgoin would face 20 years to life for each homicide. If found not guilty by reason of insanity the court would send him for a mental examination to determine if he needs to be sent to some kind of facility or can reside in the community with possible court-imposed restrictions.
Also, Bourgoin has denied two other counts of misconduct after the initial crash: misdemeanor charges of aggravated operation of the marked Williston police cruiser without consent and recklessly driving the cruiser by crashing it into the first accident scene.
A panel of 10 women and six men have been selected to hear the testimony. The final jury of 12 will be selected to decide his fate after all the evidence is heard and closing arguments are made. The trial is expected to last up to three weeks.