Man who killed 5 teens in I-89 wrong-way crash in Vt. gets 30 years to life

VtDigger

Published: 08-26-2019 10:21 PM

By ALAN J. KEAYS

BURLINGTON — Steven Bourgoin was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison Monday on five counts of murder and other charges in a wrong-way crash that killed five teenagers nearly three years ago on Interstate 89 in Williston.

Judge Kevin Griffin handed down the sentence Monday afternoon in Chittenden County Superior criminal court after hearing emotional testimony from the slain teens’ families as well as arguments from attorneys over how much prison time Bourgoin should serve behind bars.

The case will be appealed automatically to the Vermont Supreme Court.

The judge, speaking for roughly 30 minutes before revealing the sentence, called Bourgoin’s crimes “horrific” and “just stunning” that more people were not killed.

“Countless people have been victimized by Mr. Bourgoin’s actions,” Griffin said, later adding, “the crimes are crimes that deserve a significant period of punishment.”

Before the sentence was formally imposed by the judge, Bourgoin spoke briefly from the defense table. He apologized for his actions that led to the death of the five teens, and the “night of terror” for everyone at the crash scene on the interstate.

“I am so very sorry for my actions,” said Bourgoin, speaking publicly about the case for the first time since it occurred almost three years ago.

The courtroom Monday was packed, filled with many family members of the teens, as well as police officers and other emergency workers who responded to the scene that night.

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Prosecutors had asked for a 40-year-to-life sentence for the 38-year-old Bourgoin, while his attorney countered seeking a sentence that could allow his release from prison in less than 20 years.

Bourgoin faced up to 20 years to life in prison for each of the five charges of second-degree murder in the deaths of the teenagers in the crash late on the night of Oct. 8, 2016.

In addition to the murder charges, Bourgoin was convicted during the May trial of two other charges related to stealing a responding officer’s police cruiser and crashing it after the initial crash.

Many of the family members of the teens killed in the crash spoke Monday from the prosecution’s table in the courtroom and directed their comments at Bourgoin, looking over at him as they described the pain his actions have caused them and many others.

Several called for Bourgoin to receive the “maximum” sentence allowed by law, which in this case was life in prison without parole.

Bourgoin displayed no emotion throughout the hearing Monday as he sat at the defense table along with his attorney, dressed in pine green prison garb with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. His wrists and ankles were shackled.

“You can’t even look me in the eye,” Bob Brookens, Eli Brookens’ father, said to Bourgoin. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury, was killed in the crash along with Mary Harris, 16, and Cyrus Zschau, 16, both of Moretown; Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston; and Janie Chase Cozzi, 15, of Fayston. Four of the teenagers attended Harwood Union High School in Duxbury. Cozzi attended Kimball Union Academy in Meriden.

As the family members addressed the court, large images of the slain teens were projected on a courtroom wall, and in two instances, videos were shown that captured moments in the young lives of two of the teens killed in the crash.

The videos included one made by Eli Brookens himself, when he was a ninth-grader at Harwood Union High School. He talked in that video of his love of family, friends and places he had been. He spoke of his love of soccer and skiing, calling himself a “powder hound.”

In another video Liam Hale was shown from the time he was a baby up to his high school days. The video was accompanied by the Kenny Chesney song, Who’d You Be Today.

“It ain’t fair you died too young,” the country singer sang as images of Hale were displayed. “Like a story that had just begun, but death tore the pages all away.”

Daniel Harris, Mary Harris’ father, spoke in court of his daughter’s love of children, and how she wanted to become a pediatric surgeon. He called his daughter “graceful,” not only on the athletic fields but as she lived her life.

In that spirit of grace, Daniel Harris told Bourgoin, “I must forgive you.” The father added that his “only hope” is that Bourgoin reconcile what he had done by his actions and “repent and atone and make an act of attrition and understand what grace is because that will set you free.”

Several times, the family members overcome with emotion needed to stop and gather themselves before speaking.

The teenagers were all in a car traveling south on I-89 in Williston when Bourgoin slammed his pickup truck, heading north in the southbound lanes, nearly head-on into their vehicle.

After the first Williston police officer arrived at the crash scene and rushed to help the teens trapped in their vehicle, Bourgoin took that officer’s cruiser and fled, heading southbound.

Then, he turned around on the interstate, headed the wrong way and raced at more than 100 mph back to the crash scene. He crashed the cruiser at more than 100 mph into his own truck and other vehicles that had pulled over on the highway.

Attorneys for Bourgoin did not contest that it was Bourgoin behind the wheel of the pickup truck that crashed into the vehicle carrying the teens.

During the trial, Robert Katims, Bourgoin’s attorney, argued to the jury that his client was insane at the time of the crash.

Bourgoin’s attorney pointed to defense witnesses who testified the 38-year-old believed he was on a top-secret government mission, getting messages through devices, such as his computer and his pickup truck’s radio.

Prosecutors countered that Bourgoin’s actions were intentional, fueled by anger over financial struggles and a child custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend.

In court Monday, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George asked for a total sentence on all the charges of 40 years to life.

That would have meant the earliest the 38-year-old Bourgoin could have been released is when he is 76; however, the 30-year minimum sentence he received means he will be at least 66 years old before he can be released. He will be given credit for the nearly two years he has served in prison awaiting trial and sentencing.

George said that not once leading up to the sentencing hearing Monday had Bourgoin shown any remorse or taken responsibility for his actions.

“That’s because Mr. Bourgoin cares about Mr. Bourgoin,” the prosecutor said.

George called it “miraculous” that no one was killed in the second crash, and “unbelievable” that Bourgoin survived both.

Katims, representing Bourgoin, recommended a “split” sentence of 20 years to life for his client.

He said that a “significant” portion of that 20 years should be served behind bars, suggesting at least 15 years, while the remaining amount be suspended.

Katims said that Bourgoin didn’t set out trying to commit murder on the night of the crash.

“He never intended to kill anyone, let alone those five teenagers,” Katims said, later adding, “There’s no indication that Mr. Bourgoin is presently a risk to himself or others.”

Laureen Wells, of Calais, told the judge how the crash had affected her. She testified during the trial that she was a passenger in a vehicle driven by her husband, James Wells, and came upon the initial crash scene.

She said her husband, a senior deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department who was off-duty at the time, got out of the vehicle and went to see what he could to help.

Laureen Wells testified that as she remained in the vehicle, a racing police cruiser with Bourgoin behind the wheel driving the wrong way on the interstate crashed into other vehicles, sending debris onto the car she was in.

“(Bourgoin) scared me so much I thought I was dead,” Wells said Monday. “It’s a bizarre feeling when you think you’re dead.”

Wells also directly addressed Bourgoin, telling him that she never uses his name when talking about the case with her husband.

“You killed five children,” she said to Bourgoin. “The only name I ever call you is the Interstate Child Killer because that is what you are.”

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