Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
White River Junction — Police say a 24-year-old driver of a logging truck was texting while driving on Interstate 91 northbound about 15 minutes before he crashed into a disabled tractor-trailer in Norwich last summer, killing the driver who was tending to a flat tire.
Mason Morissette, of Woodstock, Maine, pleaded not guilty to a felony count of gross negligent operation of a vehicle with death resulting and a misdemeanor count of gross negligence in Windsor Superior Court on Tuesday.
Although prosecutors didn’t identify what was distracting Morissette at the time of the crash, they noted he had about 12 seconds to react to David Stefanik’s broken-down truck and had space to hug the center divide line of the interstate and pass by safely. Instead he sideswiped the truck, clipping Stefanik, according to an affidavit by Vermont State Police Trooper Dan Martin.
“An undistracted driver would have had time to move over within their lane and avoid a person standing at the side of their vehicle,” Martin wrote.
Stefanik, 54, of Shalimar, Fla., was outside of his truck “most likely” checking his trailer’s tire size so his company could send him a new one, according to the affidavit.
He was standing near the driver’s side rear tire area of the truck “in the travel portion of the interstate” when he was struck, the affidavit states. The back portion of his truck was “very close” to the white line marking off the breakdown lane from the travel lane, and the front portion of his truck was on the white line. A guardrail prevented Stefanik from pulling his truck farther off the roadway, Martin wrote.
Morissette told police he tried to “get over” but was “crowded” and ended up “rubbing up” against Stefanik’s truck, Martin wrote. When a 911 dispatcher asked Morissette if there were any injuries in the collision, he said he wasn’t aware of any, according to the affidavit.
“Morissette advised he didn’t see a person standing by the tractor-trailer or the caution triangles that had been placed out behind the tractor trailer,” Martin wrote.
A search of Morissette’s cellphone records obtained by subpoena showed he sent and received text messages approximately 15 minutes before the Aug. 17, 2015, crash, according to the affidavit.
Immediately after the accident, which happened around 3:15 p.m., Morissette gave police permission to check the text and call log on his cellphone for evidence of distracted driving. Police found no record of any recent texts or calls, Martin wrote, concluding Morissette “deleted” the texts from his phone after the accident.
Police allege Morissette also kept a fake log book of his travel, something truckers who travel long distances are required to maintain, and falsified where he had traveled on the morning of the accident.
According to the truck’s GPS log, police were able to track that Morissette left Massachusetts around 6 a.m. on the day of the accident, picked up logs in Vermont and was on his way to Maine when the accident occurred. Morissette told police he left Maine on the morning of the accident.
Vermont prosecutors weighed whether to charge Morissette for several months after the accident. Though police cited him into court on criminal charges immediately following the crash, prosecutors put charges on hold while a more detailed investigation was launched.
Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen in November said his legal team was assessing the line of sight Morissette had before his log truck struck Stefanik.
“If a reasonably prudent driver could not have avoided hitting the guy, it would be an accident,” Kainen said in November.
For the state to charge Morissette with gross negligent operation with death resulting, it would need to have evidence that Morissette had “adequate opportunity” to avoid Stefanik, Kainen said.
Stefanik was working a carnival in New York on the day before the accident, according to the investigation. He was headed to Lyndonville, Vt., transporting a carnival ride, according to the affidavit.
After Morissette’s Tuesday court hearing, Judge Theresa DiMauro released him on a $10,000 unsecured appearance bond. He has a status conference scheduled for March 7 in Windsor Superior Court.
Reached by phone, Morissette declined to comment.
Attempts to reach Stefanik’s family on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Morissette’s attorney, Robert Kaplan, of Burlington, declined to comment on the case, as did Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill, who is prosecuting the case.
If convicted, Morissette faces a maximum sentence of 17 years in prison.
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.
Records obtained by subpoena of Mason Morissette’s cellphone activity indicate that he sent and received text messages while driving north along Interstate 91 about 15 minutes before he was involved in a crash that killed another trucker in Norwich in August 2015, according to a Vermont State Police trooper’s affidavit. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how the alleged activity was discovered.