Barnes trial update: Bus driver said he didn’t see vehicle until it was too late; Troopers testify about the investigation
(Lander, Wyo.) – The second day in the trial of William Dean Barnes of Lander lasted from 9 a.m. to almost 5 p.m., with no major surprises. Court will resume at 9 a.m. on Nov. 15.
The morning was emotional as the driver of the school bus in question, and two students who were on it at the time, testified to what they saw.
Late morning and throughout the afternoon Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers answered questions.
Barnes is charged in the December 2011 death of Makayla Marie Strahle. He allegedly failed to yield for a stopped school bus and struck Makayla as she crossed U.S. Highway 26 near Crowheart. Barnes is charged with felony aggravated vehicular homicide and four misdemeanors: homicide by vehicle, maximum speed too fast for conditions, passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights and exercise of due care by driver.
Ninth District Court Judge Norman E. Young presided.
(Read about the Nov. 13 opening of the trial here.)
Day two began with the calling of Fred Peterson, the school bus driver that evening. He told Deputy County Attorney Kathy Kavanagh and the jury that he was employed with Fremont County School District 6 – Wind River from April or May in 2011 until January 2012. Prior to then, he had been a substitute school bus driver for five or six years in the Torrington area. Peterson now lives in Torrington.
Kavanagh questioned him about the safeguards of the school bus (red and yellow lights, stop sign, crossing arm) and how they work. He also talked about his training.
Peterson said that when the door of the bus opens the red lights, stop sign and crossing arm are deployed automatically. Children exit the bus only at his direction and they wait at the right front fender until he waves them across after he assures them the coast is clear.
Later, he confirmed there is a way to override the lights to keep them off when the door opens, but he said he didn’t do it that evening and would only do so in case the bus was in a wreck or emergency.
Peterson, too, noted the “periodic fog” that other witnesses brought up. He said in general on that evening’s activity bus route he was driving 50 to 55 mph.
He said normally didn’t drive Makayla, who was on the late bus due to a school dance. He knew the house, however, having driven her siblings in the past. They arrived at her home at about 6:50 p.m.
Peterson choked a bit the first time he heard Makayla’s name while on the stand.
“I looked up the road to see if anyone was coming, and no one was coming,” so he let Makayla out, he said, earlier having added that all standard lights were activated. He estimated it took Makayla about 30 seconds to get out the door and to the front of the bus where she waited as procedure dictated.
He let her cross after checking traffic. Peterson said he didn’t notice the lights of Barnes’s truck until she had started into the oncoming lane of traffic. Later, for the defense’s cross examination, Peterson drew a diagram of the events. “I thought it would slow down, stop,” he said of the oncoming vehicle. Eventually, he said he was thinking, “’Oh my god, he’s going to hit her.’ And he did.”
He said Makayla looked back at him right before impact.
Peterson said he undid his seatbelt and ran out. When he saw her backpack by itself he knew it was bad.
He said Barnes asked if she was breathing. “I said, ‘Hell no, she’s dead.’” He quoted Barnes as saying “I didn’t see your lights, I swear to God.” Peterson said he responded, “How the **** couldn’t you?”
After authorities arrived, he was allowed to give the remaining children a ride home, who all were eventually picked up by another mother.
When cross-examined by the defense’s attorney Devon Petersen, Peterson detailed his activity bus route, which he said he drove two to four times a week.
A couple pictures of interior bus controls were not admitted as evidence because they dealt with images of video camera equipment, which Peterson said his bus did not have.
A strobe light on the roof of the bus was not activated, but functional, he said. Peterson said he had been instructed to use it only in severe fog cases, which that night he didn’t believe qualified.
Upon Kavanagh’s wrap with Peterson, he confirmed that the visibility at the Sperrys’ was “pretty clear.”
The Rose brothers
Clayton Rose, 12, of Crowheart, was then called to the stand.
He said the evening of the wreck, he saw lights pass the bus when they were stopped at the Sperrys’.
“Fred said, ‘He hit her,” Clayton said, adding he knew something was wrong from Peterson’s tone. His brother Zach followed the driver out the door, he said.
Soon, Clayton followed. “I could see her backpack, her shoe, and her sock. I thought I could see a figure,” he said.
All he saw of his friend were her legs, “all bent up,” and he ran back to the bus because he was afraid. Clayton testified that he told the other children he didn’t think Makayla was alive. He said they hugged each other and cried. After the driver reunited him with his mother, he and his brother were returned to the scene to tell officials what they saw.
Clayton said the red lights of the bus were on when he exited to see what had happened.
Peteresen did not question Clayton, but said he was brave that day and was brave in his testimony to the court.
Zachary Rose, 14, then took the stand. He was in eighth grade at the time of the incident.
He, too, was in the back of the bus with the others when he saw lights go by the bus as his brother had.
Zachary confirmed he followed Peterson out of the bus. He, too, said he saw the red flashing lights.
“She was on the side of the road quite a ways from where she got off,” he said. “I was just freaking out, I was scared.”
Zachary said he went to the home and told Makayla’s stepfather, Dan Sperry, that she had been hit. Later he heard Sperry say she was gone. Zachary said he returned to the bus and started crying.
Petersen only asked a couple clarifying questions about why he was on the bus, which was for the dance.
Crowheart rancher Kayleene Leclair was taking several children to meet their parents after a practice for her church’s Christmas program when she came upon the incident site prior to law enforcement’s arrival, she told Kavanagh.
“It was very foggy,” she said.
Leclair said she was traveling between 40 and 50 mph. She had a difficult time estimating how far away she could see the flashing lights, and when she recognized it was a school bus. She used the size of the courtroom to estimate the distances. During the cross examination, Peterson noted Leclair had previously testified she could identify the bus at 60 feet.
As she neared, she said she dropped her speed to about 25 mph and eventually stopped. Another white car was stopped in front of her, Leclair said.
When asked by Peterson if she came to a stop because of all the vehicles ahead of her, which included the bus and Barnes’s truck, Leclair said yes. She said she could tell she could she was coming upon a scene.
Also, throughout the day, three Wyoming Highway Patrol Troopers who responded to the scene testified. They were Troopers Daniel Wyrick, Erik Shoden and Brian Bragonier.
Much of their testimonies overlapped.
Wyrick said he performed a breathalyzer test on and examined the pupils of Barnes’s. The breath test came back with zeros, and his eye reaction was normal. Therefore, Wyrick opted not to perform a blood test as no signs indicated any impairment.
He and Shoden both testified that Barnes said at the scene he believed he was going 40 to 45 mph and said he could see about one delineator post ahead of him. Those are generally spaced between 200 and 300 feet apart.
Photos of Barnes’s white GMC pickup were shown. Damage on the passenger front, all troopers testified, was caused by impact with Makayla. The headlight was missing, the grill was damaged and a portion of the bumper was gone. Damage on other portions of the vehicle was noted, which all said was determined to have been caused in a prior event.
Phone records showed Barnes was not making a call or sending a text. However, Shoden said Barnes could have been “in the process” of writing a text.
Shoden and Wyrick also said at the scene Barnes said he saw no lights on the bus. In an interview in January, he reportedly told the pair he saw the yellow lights and a flash of red as he passed the bus. He said at the scene he thought the other vehicle was waiting to turn left.
Petersen asked many questions surrounding whether or not a bus should pull off beyond the right fog line before letting off children. State statutes cited in court state the school bus should be as far right in the roadway as possible. Roadway is defined as excluding the shoulder.
Trooper Bragonier was questioned toward the end of the day. He gave a demonstration to the jury of how he downloads crash data from vehicles and how he did so that night. Barnes had consented to the download.
In detail, he described how the technology works.
The system in Barnes’s truck recorded data in the seconds before and after the collision. His speed was a steady 57 mph through the five seconds leading up to striking Makayla. There was also no braking in the eight seconds leading up to the wreck, Bragonier testified.
When the state was finished, Young recessed court for the day, and the defense will have an opportunity to question Bragonier when court resumes Thursday morning.