AUBURN, Maine – A farm where a teenager died in a hayride crash acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that criminal negligence played a role in the tragedy.
A lawyer for the girl’s family accused Harvest Hill Farm of putting “profit ahead of safety” by neglecting maintenance before the hayride went out of control, killing 17-year-old Cassidy Charette and sending more than 20 others to the hospital on Oct. 11, 2014.
“It was a tragedy that could have and should have been prevented,” said Jodi Nofsinger, attorney for Charette’s family.
Harvest Hill Farm pleaded guilty to a felony, driving to endanger, in exchange for dismissal of a manslaughter charge. Under the agreement, most of a $7,500 fine will go to charity; restitution will be sorted out later.
During the hearing, the parents of Charette’s boyfriend and representatives of other victims testified about the impact of the gruesome crash that left riders with broken bones — and broken hearts.
Susan Garland, mother of Charette’s boyfriend, choked back tears as she described how Charette was torn from her son’s grip by the impact, causing him to blame himself for her death. Her son, Connor, suffered a broken back that ended his hopes of playing baseball for a major college program.
“My son should not be the one feeling responsible for this horrific accident,” Garland said in Androscoggin County Superior Court.
A family friend talked about the impact on two other girls who were friends with Charette and now live with injuries and guilt. Another person, Tia Sprague, 26, was unable to care for her young child, lost her job and had to quit college because of her injuries, according to her victim statement.
Peter Bolduc, owner of the farm, sat quietly during the emotional testimony.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis cited numerous problems with the 1979 Jeep that was hauling the wagon: The load was too heavy; the brakes were faulty; the parking brake was broken; and there was an improper trailer hitch.
The brakes failed as the “Gauntlet” haunted hayride rolled downhill; the trailer then flipped and crashed at the bottom, he said.
A grand jury declined to indict Bolduc, who has said he was unaware of the safety problems with the Jeep. The Jeep’s driver was acquitted of criminal charges, and charges were dropped against the farm’s mechanic last month.
But the conviction of the corporate owner served to validate claims by victims and law enforcement officials that the farm was negligent and that the crash “was not just an unavoidable accident,” Nofsinger said.
“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,” she said in the courtroom.
Afterward, Bolduc sought out Nofsinger to offer to meet with the victims. With his eyes welling up with tears, he said he couldn’t fathom what the victims and their families have gone through.
But he also objected to the characterization that he was knowingly jeopardizing patrons by neglecting safety.
“I unequivocally would never jeopardize safety for profit. Wouldn’t do it. My wife and children were on the same rides. We worked as a family, and my family was out on those rides,” he told The Associated Press.
Nofsinger said she accepts that Bolduc didn’t know about the Jeep’s condition but said that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility.
The farm, which was represented by attorney Michael Whipple, filed for bankruptcy and was sold at auction last summer. Bolduc has no plans to try to reopen the farm in the future, Whipple said.
The end of the criminal case doesn’t represent the end of the legal proceedings. Cassidy’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit that names Bolduc, the corporation and employees.
Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-sharp.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the attorney for Charette’s family is Jodi Nofsinger, not Jody Nosfinger.