DA defends Port Clyde crash decision

By Juliette Laaka | Mar 07, 2014
Photo by: Juliette Laaka District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau speaks to the St. George community March 6 at the St. George Town Office. He answered questions about the investigation of the Aug. 11 fatal crash in Port Clyde and his reasoning for not prosecuting a criminal case against the driver, 61-year-old Cheryl Torgerson of New York City.

St. George — District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau addressed a crowd at the St. George Town Office March 6 to answer lingering questions about his decision to not press charges against the driver of a vehicle that killed a young boy and injured three others in August.

Asked how the crash occurred, Rushlau said that is his question too. He said a criminal case should not go forward based on speculating, or without solid evidence to prove a criminal mindset for the driver, 61-year-old Cheryl Torgerson of New York.

Resident Anita Siegenthal said she does not feel protected by law enforcement following the tragic crash, and said she has concerns that if another person is hit by a car walking to the post office or to church in town, the death will just be considered unfortunate and not met with legal consequences.

Many inquired how, if the vehicle autopsy showed no mechanical failure with the 2007 Infiniti, Torgerson would not be held responsible for the death of 9-year-old Dylan Gold, as she was in control of the car.

Gold's mother, Allison, 51, and brother, Wyatt, 6, of Cohasset, Mass. were also seriously injured in the crash, as well as Port Clyde resident Jonathan Coggeshall, 68.

Coggeshall's wife, Sandra, thanked Rushlau for coming to explain his decision to the community and said the love and public support shown to her husband in the past eight months has meant so much to them and his recovery.

Rushlau explained he agrees Torgerson is responsible and at fault for what occurred as she was the only person behind the wheel, and said a civil case could be brought against her to decide culpability.

A criminal case, however, is decided on different terms, namely, her state of mind at the time of the crash. To prove criminal liability, state law is dictated by four phases: intention, knowledge, recklessness and negligence. A charge of manslaughter, defined as reckless or criminal negligence causing death, will not be brought against Torgerson as there is no evidence to prove she was acting grossly different than another person would at the time of the crash and knew her actions would harm or take the life of another person.

A charge of aggravated driving to endanger could also not be tried, as there is still no evidence to prove a criminal responsibility.

A blood test revealed Torgerson was not under the influence of alcohol, but a drug screen was not performed. Rushlau said Torgerson's blood was not screened for drugs because trained officers at the scene did not suspect she was under the influence of any substance.

He said the blood would have to be sent to a laboratory in Maryland, and investigators would have to identify which drugs they were looking for in her blood specifically.

"This young kid's life isn't worth going the extra mile to find out why she did what she did?" asked resident Richard Freeman.

Rushlau said there was no indication Torgerson was under the influence of any drugs or medical distress.

Other residents asked if the police received a report that a vehicle similar to Torgerson's almost ran over another person on the Marshall Point Road before the crash.

Knox County Sheriff's Office Sgt. John Palmer, who responded to the scene in August, said he did not get a report of an erratic vehicle that day, and Rushlau said driving behavior before the crash would not be admissible as evidence because only the direct circumstances that caused the crash are able to be analyzed.

Reports of a similar vehicle to Torgerson's with a similar license plate number speeding up Route 1 on the day of the crash are also not allowed to be factored into the decision of whether or not to prosecute a criminal case, he said. It would be seen as prejudicial, evidence not directly linked the crash and intended to persuade a jury of her guilt.

Rushlau said Torgerson was at Pen Bay Medical Center having her blood drawn when she heard Gold had died. He said she was upset and tearful upon hearing the news.

"She was anything but calm," he said, responding to witness accounts Torgerson seemed calm after the crash.

Palmer said when police had a license check done, Torgerson had a clean New York driving record.

Rushlau said he has a very specific role, and that is to analyze an investigation and the evidence it produced to determine if a criminal case can be prosecuted. He does not deal with civil cases. He added he often makes difficult decisions that he does not like making.

"Sometimes I would feel better if I could charge somebody, but I would be acting unethically, knowing they won't be convicted," he said.

Criminal negligence must show a "gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation."

He added there is nothing else for the police to investigate at this time, but if additional evidence is presented, the case will be investigated again. The statute of limitations is six years, he said.

The data retrieved from the vehicle autopsy and witness reports from that day said Torgerson was completely stopped north of the Monhegan Boat Landing pier for about about 30 seconds. Rushlau said reports of Torgerson speeding into the village and onto the pier are not true, and added it is important the public know she was stopped on the hill.

He added cellphone data revealed the last communication Torgerson had was well before the crash occurred, suggesting she was not distracted by her phone when her car began to roll down the hill.

In a report released by Rushlau last month, he said the car autopsy, performed by Maine State Police, said there was no defect of the car explaining the sudden acceleration.

In the report, it is written that Torgerson rolled down the hill, struck a vehicle in front of her, rammed into a building and hit Coggeshall, causing her air bag to deploy. About four seconds after the airbag deployed, she struck multiple parked cars and injured the Golds.

Torgerson told police she did not know what happened and said her pedal had jammed, according to the report. She said it was a blur to her and added she did not know if she used the brake.

According to the report, 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 released by Rushlau Feb. 6.

Torgerson may have had one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas at the time she was stopped, he said, citing the data retrieved from the car. Rushlau said he looked at the case objectively and told reporters he can neither prove or disprove driver error, but said the consequences of her driving the vehicle was a devastating tragedy.

One resident said at the conclusion of the meeting she remains frustrated, and asked what does the community do with the information about the crash and the police investigation. "A great injustice has been done here," she said.

Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Karin Ludewig | Mar 09, 2014 13:03

In my opinion, I think that District Attorney Rushlau did the honorable and ethical thing by not prosecuting Cheryl Torgerson, based on the evidence available to his office. He made it very clear that he didn't like that result, but that there was nothing more his office could do, at this time.

DA Rushlau did not violate his oath of office by giving in to the clamor of the crowd, but properly limited his actions to the rule of law, even though he personally didn't like it. It would have been easy for him to consider future votes and do what is popular with the electorate----most officials would have done that. Merely prosecuting the case would have been a punishment to Ms Torgerson, in terms of criminal defense costs, personal travel, food and lodging expenses, time lost from work, etc., etc. even if the verdict came in as not guilty.

But that is not the purpose of the criminal law, for the District Attorney to put some citizen to enormous expense and trouble, knowing that the proof is not adequate for conviction. That would be putting his personal agenda above the law, abusing his position for personal reasons.

Before retiring and coming to Maine, I was a managing attorney in a federal law enforcement agency and fired a few lawyers who were unwilling to obey their oath of office, and limit their actions to those allowed under the US Constitution. The saying is, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Prosecuting attorneys have very substantial power and discretion. In District Attorney Rushlau, we have an ethical official who obeys his oath of office, which is a rare thing these days. He has my admiration and respect.

Posted by: Josef Berger | Mar 08, 2014 12:34

Because no charges were filed does that mean the victims are responsible for their

medical bills? What if some didn't have insurance?

Posted by: Judy Olson | Mar 08, 2014 12:16

Richard Freeman has a valid point concerning the lack of a drug sceen---a person's life was lost and they should have gone the "extra mile" to determine the cause. The excuse that trained officers were present and determined she wasn't under the influence of any substances is not satisfactory. The officers possibly could have made an error in their judgment and the drug screen would have been proof of her drug status. All avenues need exploration concerning such a deadly accident.

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