Evidence not sufficient to prove criminal negligence

D.A. makes statement on fatal Port Clyde crash

By Juliette Laaka | Feb 06, 2014
The scene of a car crash that killed a child and injured three others in Port Clyde August 11. The driver of the vehicle, Cheryl Torgerson, has not been charged with a crime.

Rockland — District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said there is not enough evidence at this time to prosecute a New York City woman who was driving the vehicle that struck a building, cars, killed a child and injured three others in Port Clyde.

In a statement released Feb. 6, Rushlau said if new evidence is presented showing criminal negligence, the case can and will be reviewed again.

Rushlau said the decision has been discussed with the Gold family of Massachusetts and Jonathan Coggeshall of St. George, who were victims of the crash.The Golds' son, Dylan, 9, was killed.

"The Gold's have suffered a devastating loss. Mrs. Gold and Mr. Coggeshall were severely injured and after six months have not fully recovered. Were there sufficient evidence to show Cheryl Torgerson is criminally responsible for Dylan's death and for severe injuries to Allison Gold and Jonathan Coggeshall, a case would be prosecuted to the fullest extent," Rushlau said.

Rushlau's report describes the case with witness accounts, police statements and vehicle autopsy findings.

On Aug. 11, Cheryl Torgerson, 61, left her home in New York City and drove to Port Clyde, intending to take the 3 p.m ferry to Monhegan Island.

She arrived at 2:30 p.m. and was stopped completely and remained in her vehicle a short distance form the wharf, Rushlau's report said. Torgerson's vehicle, a 2007 Infiniti sedan, then began to move forward. Statements obtained by investigators by witnesses, and information from the airbag module, provided a picture of what occurred.

During the first several seconds the brakes were on and the throttle pedal was partly depressed, 33 percent or less. Approximately four seconds before the airbag deployed, the brake pedal changed from on to off, and the throttle pedal position changed to 100 percent, said the statement.

The initial movement down the hill toward the pier was slow, 4 to 5 mph. Torgerson's vehicle struck a Honda Pilot in front of it, spinning it around.

During the seconds immediately before the airbag deployed, vehicle speed and engine RPM increased rapidly. Speed increased, as reported in one second intervals to 4 mph to 5mph to 10 mph to 13 mph to 22 mph and was at 31 mph at airbag deployment.

The deployment of the airbag was likely a result of the car striking the terminal building.

Torgerson's vehicle continued down the terminal, striking and injuring Jonathan Coggeshall, 68, of Port Clyde. The vehicle continued to strike vehicles parked on the wharf. The car's speed had dropped to 17 mph, and then increased again to a maximum of 32 mph three to four seconds after deployment.

Alison Gold and her sons, Dylan, 9, and Wyatt, 6, were injured when the series of cars along the wharf were hit.  Dylan died of his injuries a short time later, said the statement.

Witnesses, who responded to the crash, heard Torgerson say she did not know what happened. One witness said they hear her say that the accelerator just "went."

Torgerson told Sgt. John Palmer of the Knox County Sheriff's Office the car suddenly accelerated as if the gas pedal was stuck to the floor. In her written statement, she said the pedal was "jammed." She also told the officer she could not remember if she used the brake, and said after the acceleration, the rest was a blur.

Torgerson's blood sample contained no trace of alcohol and she showed no sign of injury or illness.

Torgerson's vehicle was examined by Maine State Police accident reconstructionist Christopher Rogers. He founds no indication that throttle pedal movement was obstructed by carpeting or anything else. The pedal operates electronically, and did not find vehicle defects that would have caused sudden acceleration. Rogers also determined the model of vehicle is equipped with an override system. If braking is applied, the throttle is overridden and the vehicle will not accelerate even with the throttle pedal depressed, said the statement.

Testing a similar vehicle, Rogers found the brake override system functioned properly at speeds from 10 to 40 mph.

The car had been serviced and inspected in July 2013.

"I do not have a conclusive reason as to why Cheryl Torgerson accelerated her vehicle onto the Monhegan Boat Line pier," said Rogers' report.

Operation of a vehicle that causes death can be prosecuted as manslaughter. Operating a vehicle to cause serious bodily injury can be prosecuted as aggravated driving to endanger. The crimes require the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the driver acted with at least criminal negligence. As defined in the Maine Criminal Code, "the failure to be aware of the risk [here that the driver will cause either a death of a serious bodily injury], when viewed in the light of the nature and purpose of the person's conduct and the circumstances known to that person, must involved a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation."

Rushlau concluded the evidence available at this time is not sufficient to prove Torgerson acted with criminal negligence.

Although some witnesses reported her vehicle sped into the terminal area from Route 131, other accounts and airbag module data show the vehicle was stopped just north of the terminal. The brakes suddenly went from on to off and the pedal went to 100 percent and stayed there.

Coggeshall said Feb. 3 he is disappointed the case will not be presented to the Knox County Grand Jury to decide whether a criminal case against Torgerson will proceed.

He said although Torgerson blamed the car's accelerator for the crash, with evidence from the vehicle's black box, and reports of her behavior before and after the accident, he will be disappointed if she takes no responsibility for what happened.

Coggeshall would not comment on whether he will pursue a civil case against Torgerson.

Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison said she agrees with Rushlau's decision not to pursue criminal charges as she said there is not enough evidence to support a case.

"I believe the district attorney made a very careful and in-depth study of the entire incident. He therefore made a very well thought-over conclusion. I agree with Mr. Rushlau and his decision, the facts do not support criminal charges. This remains a very tragic accident, one that we and the community will not soon forget," she said in an email Feb. 3.

Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 5944401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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Juliette Laaka
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Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.

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