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Driver in bike case cited only for DUI, not charged in cyclist's death

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Posted on July 23, 2015 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



Gonyeau.jpg
HOLLY GONYEAU OF Ferrisburgh, standing next to Addison County Public Defender Jim Gratton, is arraigned in Addison County Superior Court Monday afternoon. Gonyeau pleaded innocent to driving under the influence during a June 17 accident in Ferrisburgh that left a bicyclist dead. Pool photo by Glenn Russell/Burlington Free Press

MIDDLEBURY — Holly Gonyeau, 36, of Ferrisburgh pleaded innocent on Monday in Addison Superior Court’s Criminal Division in Middlebury to driving under the influence of alcohol during the June 17 accident that claimed the life of a cyclist on Greenbush Road in Ferrisburgh. Family of the cyclist wonder why she did not face more severe charges that could have included vehicular homicide.

That DUI charge on which Gonyeau was arraigned carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $750 fine. Gonyeau was released with conditions including reporting to court when required and refraining from drinking. The next scheduled court date for the case is an Aug. 24 status conference, according to court records.

Dr. Kenneth Najarian, 60, of Charlotte was on a bike ride on Greenbush Road on Wednesday, June 17. He died just before 6 p.m. that day after being struck by Gonyeau’s car. According to court documents, Gonyeau’s blood-alcohol content at the site tested at 0.123, and two hours later her evidentiary test read 0.087. Vermont’s legal BAC limit for driving is 0.08.

Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Christopher Perkett said evidence gathered by the Vermont State Police accident reconstruction team and an autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner supported the theory that the victim had turned into the middle of Greenbush Road in front of Gonyeau’s car, an action that probably caused the accident.

“The report from the crash reconstruction team was very clear that even if somebody had been not impaired by the use of alcohol, the accident was likely to have occurred, simply that alcohol did not play a factor, and we take that very seriously,” Perkett said.

The crash reconstruction looked at damage both to Gonyeau’s car and to the bicycle, plus the placement of Najarian’s bicycle on Greenbush Road, as well as other factors, Perkett said.

“To the extent we can create an obvious narrative that talks about where the point of impact was, where everybody was, where everybody was facing at the time of impact, it appeared that we were not going to be able to prove, and this is one of our obligations to prove in the case of a felony, that but for the impaired driving the crash would not have occurred, the death would not have occurred,” he said.

In the affidavit filed in court by VSP Trooper Eden Neary, Neary assessed Gonyeau as in a state of “moderate impairment” at the time of the accident.

But Neary also wrote Gonyeau told investigators that it appeared Najarian was attempting to make a U-turn in front of her: The affidavit states, “the bicyclist turned his head as if to look to see if a vehicle was coming and at the same timeturned out in front of her. Gonyeau said she had no time to react.”

Burlington attorney Ben Luna attended Monday’s arraignment to represent the Najarian family, including his wife, Kristine Najarian. Luna described them as “distraught” by both the accident and prosecutors’ decision not to file a more serious charge. He also filed motions on Monday asking VSP and court officials to preserve all evidence and allow an expert hired by the family to perform an independent investigation.

Luna in a Tuesday phone interview said experts he had hired on the family’s behalf had already reviewed the VSP affidavit and the accident scene and come to a different interpretation of the physical evidence: that Najarian was riding in a straight line when he was struck.

“We dispute that Dr. Najarian made an abrupt U-turn. In my consultation with independent expert witnesses, there are alternative explanations as to how and why a cyclist struck by a vehicle veers to the left,” he said. “And I am not prepared to release it yet, but I have diagrams that have been provided by expert witnesses that provide an alternative account that dispute VSP’s conclusions.”

Luna also discounted Gonyeau’s testimony in the affidavit, referring to her level of impairment, which according to the affidavit also included Xanax and other prescription drugs.

“And what do you know about the driver?” Luna said.

Luna said the family was in the process of hiring an independent accident reconstruction expert, but he had also hired on the family’s behalf Pearson Consulting and Investigations LLC of Burlington to probe the accident. He said some results had already been forthcoming.

“We have already discovered additional evidence in this case, and by we I mean my investigation team. But at this point we can’t release that to the public. And have relayed information, recently discovered information, to the state’s attorney’s office,” Luna said.

Perkett acknowledged that evidence, and said State’s Attorney David Fenster, who headed the prosecuting team, would be keeping an open mind.

“He (Luna) has suggested some avenues of evidence, and we’ve taken them seriously, and we’ve followed up on those, and we’ll continue to do so,” Perkett said. “For all that we’ve made a charge decision, until there is an ultimate sentence decision, it’s an open case. We have an obligation, and we’ll keep following that obligation, to keep searching for the truth. But at this point, what we’ve charged is what we believe we can prove.”

Luna is also seeking help from any potential witnesses, particularly, he said, “anyone familiar with the defendant’s driving on June 17.” Those who might have seen anything are asked to call 802-881-8775 or 802-489-5228.

The two motions to preserve and allow access to evidence by the family’s hired experts require the approval of presiding Judge Robert Mello.

“We have concerns about the crash investigation that’s been completed, and we want to make sure our concerns are addressed independent of VSP’s crash report,” Luna said. 

Perkett said on Tuesday that those motions were unusual.

“In my 11 years as a prosecutor here, I’ve never had a victim present a motion through an independent counsel as if they were a party to the action,” he said. “I don’t know what the judge will do with this, to be honest, and I haven’t spoken with State’s Attorney Fenster to know what our response is going to be.”

Some also have questioned whether the fact that Gonyeau is married to a Williston police sergeant influenced the investigation, but county law enforcement officials have maintained that connection is irrelevant. Luna did not raise the issue during a 15-minute interview on Tuesday.

Regardless, on one point, all parties could agree.

“My heart goes out to Kristine Najarian and the kids and his whole extended family for this loss. It’s a terrible thing to have him ripped away,” Perkett said. “This is just a tragic circumstance.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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