Tragedy on Avon Mountain – Ten Years Later

Smoke, Fire and Angels

Smoke, Fire and Angels by Mark Robinson

This is a true story about real people, the best and the most irresponsible among us. It’s about what happened before, during and after one of the worst crashes in Connecticut history. It’s about innocent victims and heroes – everyday people.

Commuters take traffic for granted.  We know the ins and outs, the pitfalls and shortcuts we can take traversing to work on a daily basis. Sometimes we are lulled into a sense of complacency about it all. Our small State of Connecticut actually has 3,734 route miles or 9,834 lane miles consisting of start roadways with only 21% built after 1980, 4,000 bridges maintained by the state with a third built before 1950.  It is reported that we spend an average of a full work week, 40 hours in traffic per year with a projected cost of $1.6 billion lost in wasted fuel and time.

The human stories will be told eloquently by survivor and author Mark Robinson on Shattered Lives Radio and throughout the pages of his award-winning book, Smoke, Fire and Angels Tragedy on Avon Mountain and the Life Changing Aftermath. The victims range from fine upstanding citizens making their daily contributions, to a truck driver trying to get his life in order, to a father with five adorable  girls who wore matching tool belts when they made bird houses together in their workshop.

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They included Barbara Bongiovanni, 54, of Torrington, Maureen Edlund, 60, of Canton, and Paul A. “Chip” Stotler, 42, of New Hartford – died in the crash, along with the truck driver, Abdulraheem Naafi, 41, of Hartford.

Frank Juan, Jr with a 35 year career as a bus driver suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injuries and was unconscious until Sept. 5, 2005, then underwent months of rehabilitation, and ultimately died of his injuries in March, 2008.

This is to set the stage, a preview with selected fascinating facts if you will, for a tribute podcast concerning the horrible crash that occurred on the infamous Avon Mountain on Route 44 on Friday, July 29, 2005.   There are many facts, there is much human emotion, there is greed, legal loopholes, circumstances that set in motion a runaway train, that was in reality a dump truck  that careened out of control and needlessly took 5 lives and injured 23 in this one event, not to mention many other accidents that came before it.

  • The man ultimately responsible was a business owner, David Wilcox who in effect tried to reinvent his trucking business filing under new names when he got into trouble “like lipstick on a pig” whose  bad deeds caught up with him. Playing ‘fast and loose’ with human lives.
  • The State of Connecticut legislature figured prominently with a legal loophole stemming from a 1993 law that essentially turned a blind eye regarding notification to the DMV  insurance coverage lapses for trucks and commercial vehicles only,  but not for private passenger vehicles.
  • As early as 1984, the American Association of State and Highway and Transportation Officials recommended that truck ramps be built on the mountain to deter such accidents, but it was not done.
  • Wilcox suspended insurance coverage from Arcadia Insurance in Westbrook Maine seven months before the crash and received a refund check of $40,000. In a flurry of calls hours after the crash he and his wife, Donna, and other employees tried unsuccessfully to reinstate the coverage and cover it up.
  • Lawsuits by victims of the crash were entrenched in whether there were design flaws, inadequate statues covering such debate and just what can the state be sued for, not falling under the precious sovereign immunity ruling  Remember the Charla Nash case?
  • Abdulraheem Naafi, 41, was the dump truck driver who perished in the crash in the crash, had a lengthy criminal record and was aware that the truck had no brakes.
  • American Crushing was forced to take 19 of its 33 vehicles taken out of service following poor inspections during the 24 months before Sept. 24, 2005. Mathematically, 57.6 percent of its trucks were out of service, which is more than double the national average rate of 22.9 percent.
  • Internet research revealed that it is possible to match identifying codes printed on trucks with a national data base in order to identify uninsured drivers.  However, it appears that was not done in this case, or as a matter of routine.
  • In 2005, David Wilcox was charged with four counts of second degree manslaughter, and five counts of first degree assault. In exchange for guilty pleas he was given the maximum of six years in prison in June 2009.
  • His son pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and was given probation. His wife Donna pleaded no contest to insurance fraud and attempted larceny and was given probation
  • In 2008, the State of Connecticut finally constructed a runaway truck ramp making the route somewhat safer than it had been previously.
  • (Note: as the author of this blog I will respectfully seek copies of victim impact statements as a matter of public record in an effort to stress the importance of this vital right for all victims of crime and to remind criminals with no conscience like David Wilcox, who, as the judge said, “played Russian Roulette for years with the lives of others.”
  • For anyone who is a victim of crime and may need my services, please contact me for Victim Impact Statement Services.
  • Post  Script-  Lawsuits Lost – August 13, 2014

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that victims of the 2005 fiery crash at the bottom of Avon Mountain that killed four people and injured many others, cannot sue the state on allegations that Route 44 had a dangerously steep design and lacked adequate safety measures.

Justices said in a 5-1 decision, dismissing two lawsuits that the alleged poor design of the road and lack of warning signs and other safety measures did not make the highway defective under state law. Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote, “…the allegations did not fall within the exemptions to the state government’s immunity from lawsuits.”

Mark Robinson presents his book Smoke, Fire and Angels

Mark Robinson presents his book Smoke, Fire and Angels

Mark Robinson was in front row of traffic that morning; he broke 9 bones and punctured a lung; he is incredibly lucky to be alive. Mark is currently director, internal communications, ING, in Windsor, Connecticut. He has a communications background; that experience plus direct involvement in crash add up to a unique opportunity to provide a first-person account and to get access to behind-the-scenes information, including the personal stories of victims and their families.

Robinson’s mission using the proceeds of his book, Smoke, Fire and Angels:

Honor the memories of those who died as a result of the crash: Chip Stotler, Maureen Edlund, Barbara Bongiovanni, Abdulraheem Naafi and Frank Juan.

Raise money for victims of the crash. In addition to the devastating loss of loved ones, victims’ families have also suffered tremendous financial hardships.

Honor the courage and kindness of the emergency services people and Good Samaritans.

Raise awareness about importance of road safety.

Tell the amazing story of what happened that day

Shattered Lives Radio

 

References:

http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/east/2014/08/13/337490.htm

http://articles.courant.com/2008-03-17/news/0803170061_1_accident-truck-guy

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01E6DB1030F931A35753C1A9639C8B63

 

THAT “MAGIC AGE”

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Sitting in the doctor’s office in the skimpy paper gown, all I could think of was,“I don’t have time for all of these referrals!” It was time to check this, check that and the other thing, not because I am chronically, or even temporally, ill. It was because Big Brother Insurance (cousin to Big Pharma) prescribes it is time and because I’m of that “magic age” 60!   People say I don’t look 60 and I don’t feel it most of the time.  In my mind’s eye and heart, I’m really 30 years old.  Try telling that to the medical community.

Don’t get me wrong, traditional medicine was a very valuable asset as a child in the 50’s, 60’s and beyond, for how could I EVER have gotten through about 17 orthopedic and 33 throat surgeries without them? I shudder to think about what they did in ancient times putting “people like me” with significant disabilities on paper in institutions. However, medical care is all about mergers, big business and profitability with insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and many others as co-conspirators.

We still have so much education to do regarding the acceptance of integrative medicine and naturopathic methods. It’s a long and rare find to get a traditionally trained internal medicine physician to consider any natural methods to your body’s conditions.  It’s like putting your shoes on the wrong feet, I guess.  An integrative approach takes advantage of both worlds in medicine, traditional and holistic.

I lost the attention of the most highly rated dermatologist in the State of Connecticut when she staunchly refused to open her mind to consider any other methods after all of her expensive injector drugs, IV’s and creams failed to work on my plaque psoriasis. I still like her as a person, but I am disappointed that she was so closed-minded.

The best news of all was that Dr. Dalal Akoury of AWAREmed Health and Wellness Resource Center in Myrtle Beach, SC wasAWAREmed, Dr. Dalal Akoury truly the answer to my problems, for she took great care to diagnose and treat the root cause versus the symptom. I am successfully carrying on nearly three years later, despite my crazy stressful life. And I’m just one example in a million.

With pen and paper or computer mouse poised for action, I love the question each time an exam is due, “So what medications are you taking now? I revel in saying “None, I just take natural supplements.”  They really can’t deal with that, it does not compute, it’s Greek to them. They have never heard of the companies or the names, nor can they spell them. If you’re not going to CVS three times a week, they can’t deal. Poor them! I choose to spend my time elsewhere.

And then there’s the health care plan with State Government rules imposed. I am so fortunate to have Cadillac level insurance for just about anything that might happen.  Around 2011 or so, state government got smart and decided to become the health care police for all of the expensive benefits if employees weren’t paying attention!  They decided to contrive a Health Enhancement Plan.

From the Current Employee Handbook-

The Health Enhancement Program (HEP)

Regardless of what health plan you select, you and your family can enroll in the Health Enhancement Program (HEP). HEP encourages employees and their enrolled family members to take charge of their health and health care by following health guidelines defined by the program. By signing up for HEP, you can save $100 per month in premiums and become eligible for waiver of an annual in-network deductible of $350 per member (up to a maximum of $1400 per family).

From the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (i.e. Unions)

This voluntary enhancement program shall be made available to all state employees and retirees (including all enrolled dependents) during each open enrollment as part of all of the Point of Enrollment and Point of Service plans currently available. 

It shall include a written commitment) to the requirements of the program in order to be admitted and remain admitted to the program, including agreed upon health assessments and screenings designed to provide early diagnosis and appropriate information to patients so that they and their doctors can choose the best treatment of any illness; This program is designed to enhance the ability of patients with their doctors to make the most informed decisions about staying healthy, and, if ill, to treat their illness.

They set up a plan in which you can track your progress with a timeline.  What fun!  If you have one of “The Big 5” and don’t pay attention, you will be fined each month.

i. Diabetes, both Type 1 and 2

ii. Asthma and COPD –Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

iii. Heart failure/heart disease

iv. Hyperlipidemia- Hyperlipidiemia is a mouthful, but it’s really just a fancy word for too many lipids – or fats – in the blood.  That can cover many conditions, but for most people, it comes down to two well-known terms: high cholesterol and high triglycerides.

v. Hypertension- High Blood Pressure

Analogy –

In concept, I agree with this plan. It’s almost like trying to keep track of multiple offenders in the criminal justice system. If you can nip marijuana in the bud, potentially no escalation to heroin. If you can reform someone who steals a car, perhaps you will have less homicide – in theory. If you can get your cholesterol levels down, less chance to have a heart attack or CVA-stroke. Genetics also plays a role whether you have “the disease” or not, if it’s in the family you must be tested!  Hmmm… Think about George Burns, smoking cigars well into his 90’s. Genetics is the magic formula.

Donna R. Gore

Not so bad for 60!

Back to my Exam – As someone told me, “You’re in the system, they’ve got you.” Recommended examples for someone my age in good health with my family profile:   Mammogram, Colonoscopy, Blood levels for Cholesterol, Bone Density Scan.

When I can fit them in, I’m doing it “just because” and I don’t want to miss something bad!  I don’t want to have a devastating  surprise, but that would be a fatalist’s point of view. I prefer to be optimistic. After all, the law of averages says that I have had enough health problems on paper for ten people, so I’m not worried. But, I’d rather be writing, helping crime victims or a million other things.

Age is just a state of mind, anyway!

 

 

Closing Arguments and the Downfall of a Prosecutor

Freda Back During Peterson Trial

Freda Black during trial of Michael Peterson

If you are a survivor of crime, a fan of legal dramas or have read my former blog discussing closing arguments, you understand that the closing argument can be thought of in many ways. It can be the icing on the cake, the last nail in the coffin, the bow tying it all together,  the crescendo of the symphony,  or it can even contain the rare “gotcha” moment as in the Drew Peterson trial, for example.

The stakes are so very high for the defendant.  As accused murderer, Michael Petersen so aptly put it, no matter which side you’re on, “It’s all about winning, truth is lost.”

You will find attorneys who are very skilled at theater as that’s what the closing argument truly is. The quality of the argument surely is influenced by the evidence, or lack thereof, and the character of the defendant. Other crimes not relevant to the current case are typically not allowed to be part of the scenario.  Even when the evidence of the defendant’s guilt is unquestionable, as was the case in the murderer of my father, prosecutors still engage in character assassination of the victim.

This brings me to the fascinating closing argument of former assistant prosecutor, Freda Black, in the initial Michael Peterson trial. A hearing in November 2011 ruled that Michael Peterson was eligible for a new trial due to the lies and incompetent methods used in many cases by special agent Dwayne Deaver. I remain steadfast in my opinion that Michael Peterson is guilty, but can respect the intense, strategic and intelligent defense provided by David Rudolph.

As for Freda Black, she was an enigma, very complex and just plain bizarre. She reminded me of a real-life caricature of the cartoon character Cruella Deville. To truly capture her unique persona, one would need to view the full 384 minutes or 6.5 hours of The Staircase to truly capture her unique persona.

Her clothes and make up were very intense, her mannerisms, and interactions were out of the 1940s or something, combined with the speech pattern of a “true Southern lady.” And yet, you may know the theory of the case and the motives presented. It was NOT the prefect marriage at all, with the discovery by Kathleen Peterson of gay porn on Michael’s computer and his bi-sexuality with revealing e-mails the night of her killing in which an argument ensued.

Freda Black

Freda Black

Despite Freda Black’s uniqueness, the doubt about the true murder weapon and the other women killed from a fall down the stairs, Freda delivered her portion of the closing argument flawlessly, as only she could do, with Jim Hardin adding a little icing at the end.

It’s a bigger impact to see the closing arguments of Freda Black and Jim Hardin, and I encourage you to find a copy of The Staircase to be able to experience all the nuances she brings to the case.

From my personal copy I’ve transcribed the complete closing arguments so readers have the opportunity to know what she said, and how she said it.

Freda Black & Jim Hardin’s Closing Arguments (PDF)

 

NOT included in her closing argument was the infamous Owl Theory put forth by attorney Larry Pollard. In an interview from August 20, 2008 Freda Black discounts the the Owl Theory, explaining why she feels it’s not a legitimate theory.

The Next Chapters –

Freda Black, the sometimes villainous assistant prosecutor and southern lady extraordinaire, had a legal career spanning from 1991 to at least 2008 according to internet sources. Perhaps it is customary to be dismissed when you run for elective office against the head prosecutor, I don’t know.

Durham County Rocked by Scandal and Corruption- 

As reported in the Washington Post in March 2014, Michael Nifong was the assistant district attorney for Durham County. He would later be appointed, and then elected to district attorney. He was Freda’s boss.  He make national headlines in 2006 when he falsely charged three Duke University lacrosse players with sexually assaulting a stripper. In 2007 Nifong was disbarred for his handling of evidence in that case. He was also found in contempt for making false statements about the case in court and faced potential civil suits.

In 2010, a report from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office as a follow up to a prior local newspaper investigation, uncovered widespread corruption and malfeasance in the state’s crime lab. This included the infamous special agent Dwayne Deaver (associated with the Michael Peterson trial and many others.)   Fallout from that scandal contributed to the removal of Nifong’s successor, District Attorney Tracey Cline, in 2012. (Prosecutors are rarely ever removed from office for misconduct.)

Freda Black ran for the top prosecutor’s office in 2006 and 2008, but unfortunately lost both times.

In 2010, Freda Black and Kerry Sutton were among those who sought Judge Anne McKown’s 14th District Court seat in Durham, according to the State Board of Elections.   Doretta Walker wins the seat.

And Then Something Happened to this Legal Servant-

Let’s be clear. I would not be the fan club president for Ms. Black. However, it appears she was just doing her job to the best of her ability, coming out of a trail with more permutations and layers than one could imagine that continues today.  She ran for other offices and appeared to have support in a community tainted by scandal.

 

Freda Black

Freda Black

 

As reported:

One of the key figures in the Mike Peterson murder trial is now facing her own legal challenges.

Former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black is due in Durham County Court on Dec. 10 on drunken driving charges.

A former Durham County Assistant District Attorney was arrested Tuesday night in Orange County after police allege she was driving while impaired.

Freda Black, once a high-profile prosecutor in Durham, was arrested about 5:26 p.m. on the 200 block of East Corbin Street in Hillsborough, according to her arrest report.

This isn’t the first time Black has been accused of driving while impaired. In October 2012 she faced the same charge in Durham County. Black is due to appear in Orange County Court on Feb. 5. She was released from custody under a written promise to appear, according to arrest records.

It is unclear if Black is practicing law, but she is still an active member of the North Carolina State Bar.

According to Orange County Sheriff’s office arrest document Black’s current employer is Durham Cleaners. As Jim Hardin stated at the Peterson trial, “This picture speaks a thousand words”

Commentary 

Judge Jim Hardin

Judge Jim Hardin

I don’t disparage anyone working at a dry cleaning business if that’s all they can do, or if they really love it.  All of us age and frequently gain weight. All of us have problems and many turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. I just wonder if the Michael Peterson trail and all of the Durham scandals, or simply a lonely life contributed to Ms. Black’s current situation. We may never know. It is very tragic when the full extent of the impact and the toll on lives is measured. I prefer to think of her when she was at her best closing argument ever!

PS. Jim Hardin has been on the bench as a practicing judge at least since 2011.

 

 

Additional References –

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/03/20/darryl-howard-and-the-rampaging-prosecutor-durham-learns-little-from-duke-lacrosse-debacle

http://www.heraldsun.com/news/showcase/x1351410967/Former-Durham-prosecutor-Freda-Black-charged-with-DWI

http://abc11.com/archive/8845874/

My Cup Runneth Over with Love – CCIRI on a Mission for Life

 

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There are times in life- moments, hours, days and experiences that we can NEVER re-capture!  Those who give and utilize their talents daily to assist others do not expect miracles.  It is a labor of love, something that is second nature for them.   And yet, on the path of life, there are those times that truly stand out and turn out to be life changing!

Such is the story of Atlanta’s Cold Case Investigative Research Institute /CCIRI whose calling it is to mold young minds who are interested in criminal justice, build humanitarianism and empathy for victims of crime.  If in the process, students’ lives are positively altered forever… well, so much the better. In fact, there are a thousand stories Sheryl McCollum, Criminologist and Founder of CCIRI, can relate which begin in this way.

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Fast forward to July 2015, and you are witness to a very unique expedition for justice and perhaps eventual resolution for selected families across the country.  Shattered Lives Radio picked up the action during a stop in the Arizona desert.   Sheryl talked with much passion and excitement .There  have been significant breakthroughs  even at this early stage in the tour – Cases in Atlanta, Alabama, New Orleans, Oklahoma, Arizona and as far as Utah.  Household names in the roster of crime, such as Mary Shotwell Little, Chandra Turner, Susan Powell, and others not so famous are included.  DNA submissions, discovery of new witnesses who can validate accounts and establish timelines,  Calling it like it is by ‘legal eagle’, Holly Hughes who skillfully engages the media, can go a long way to moving cases further along and giving families hope and endurance to “keep up the fight.”

However, the most amazing and unexpected part of their tour thus far, fill Sheryl, a larger than life personality and ever positive criminologist with wonder and awe! Why?   The outpouring of generosity – financially,  from single dollars  to larger amounts, , gas cards, small acts of kindness,  cultural enrichment,  free lodging, home cooked meals,  bottles of water,  airfare, victim families reaching out to other families, even  providing  Sheryl’s children  “buddy playmates” and on and on!  Indeed, as we face chaos and inexplicable violence in virtually every area of our country today, when all is said and done, generosity still reigns!

THEY’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN – Today is July 11th. The tour continues through the month of July and perhaps beyond July with a break in between.  Therefore, much is needed to complete their work. Although it is not expected, all donations are gratefully appreciated and put to very good use!  If you would like to assist in this venture, please send your contributions to:

DONATIONS:

Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI)

541 Tenth Street #235

Atlanta, GA 30318

 

It may be old fashioned , but this song from the 60’s by Ed Ames says what all the members of CCIRI feel:     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvaQisHV8jw

Please continue to follow this wonderful adventure in justice with CCIRI and Shattered Lives Radio in the future!

Shattered Lives Radio