Gonyeau sentenced to probation in death of bicyclist
MIDDLEBURY — The Ferrisburgh resident who was driving under the influence of alcohol on June 17 when her car struck and killed a Charlotte physician bicycling on Greenbush Road in Ferrisburgh was on Monday sentenced to a year’s probation and 80 days of community service in the Addison County Superior Court.
Judge Samuel Hoar handed down that sentence, to which was also attached a lengthy list of conditions that included drug and alcohol screening and substance abuse treatment, after Holly Gonyeau, 36, changed her plea from innocent to no contest.
The DUI, first offense, charge on which Gonyeau was sentenced carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $750 fine.
Gonyeau must also maintain close contact with her probation officer and refrain from drinking. On Monday, Gonyeau told the court she had not had a drink since the June 17 accident, during which she was also under the influence of Xanax and other prescription drugs, according to court documents.
During a statement in which she apologized to the victim’s family, Gonyeau also told the court she had already been attending an alcohol treatment program.
Gonyeau’s case has sparked debate because a Vermont State Police investigation concluded Gonyeau was not legally responsible for the death of Dr. Kenneth Najarian, 60, of Charlotte, despite a roadside blood-alcohol content test that read 0.123. VSP said two hours later her evidentiary BAC test came in at 0.087. Vermont’s legal BAC limit for driving is 0.08.
A state police investigation concluded that Najarian attempted a U-turn in front of Gonyeau’s car, thus causing the accident. 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 said that connection is irrelevant.
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster again this week said evidence in the case supported only the DUI charge against Gonyeau, even though Najarian’s family and members of Vermont’s cycling community have said more serious charges should have been filed.
“The evidence we had was that the fatality was not the result of her driving under the influence. That was why we charged it the way we did,” Fenster said. “And consequently we were sentencing an individual who was convicted of first offense DUI.”
Fenster said many first-time DUI offenders are fined, and that Gonyeau’s attorney, Brooks McArthur, sought a fine in court on Monday.
But Fenster instead recommended to Judge Hoar a longer sentence of 150 hours of community service, along with the alcohol conditions, believing that was a more appropriate way to handle Gonyeau’s case.
“Even though, and this is what I told the court, she wasn’t legally responsible for the fatality she was involved in a motor vehicle accident that resulted in a fatality,” he said. “And that was one of the circumstances the court should consider when determining what the appropriate sentence was.”
Najarian’s widow, Kristine Najarian, on Monday read a statement in court, over the objection of Gonyeau’s attorney. She sought the maximum punishment for Gonyeau and said the investigation had erred, in part because her husband had been an experienced cyclist who would not make such a basic mistake.
VSP ruled that Najarian, after a car in front of Gonyeau’s passed him, pulled in front of Gonyeau’s car. 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 turned out in front of her. Gonyeau said she had no time to react.”
Law enforcement officials said evidence gathered by the VSP 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 crash reconstruction looked at damage both to Gonyeau’s car and to the bicycle, as well as the placement of Najarian’s bicycle on Greenbush Road, as well as other factors, officials said.
Lawyers for Najarian’s estate and Kristine Najarian dispute that account, and have filed a civil suit in Burlington. Family attorneys are also seeking all evidence in the case to be preserved.
“I would expect that the information would be available to them,” Fenster said.
In August, they also contested Gonyeau’s request to change her plea to no contest. In a filing by estate attorney Benjamin Luna of Burlington, forensic toxicologist Darcy Richardson is quoted as saying, “In the nearly 15 years of working in this field I have reviewed roughly 8,000 cases. I have never observed a crash where alcohol was present, especially in concentrations over the legal limit, that alcohol was not listed as a contributing factor to the accident.”
Luna’s August motion contesting Gonyeau’s no-contest plea stated such a plea would only have been appropriate if it had been to a more serious charge that included responsibility for Najarian’s death, such as drunken driving with death resulting.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].