(12/19/2002)
COURTROOM ACCOUNT

By Bob Weaver

Nineteen-year-old Melvin A. Shaffer, Jr. of Stumptown was found guilty by a jury Wednesday of negligent homicide in the vehicular death of Rodney Wagoner, 44, of Big Bend. Shaffer's 1995 Dodge truck collided head-on with Wagoner's 1993 Ford truck on March 24, 2002 near Big Bend, after Shaffer was reportedly passing on a double line.

Magistrate Postalwait sentenced Shaffer to the maximum time, one year in jail, $1000 fine and court costs. Shaffer's attorney Teresa Monk is appealing the sentence.

Brian, the deceased Wagoner's son, was driving his dad to return tables borrowed by Wagoner's church after Sunday services. The critically injured, 20-year-old youth was trapped in the truck, his life hanging in balance for several days.

The elder Wagoner died instantly, thrown from the vehicle. Young Melvin Shaffer was trapped in his truck, extricated by the Jaws of Life.

Emergency workers called the accident one of the "worst scenes" in recent memory and Calhoun Prosecutor Tony Morgan told the jury it was "one of the most serious misdemeanor trails conducted in this courtroom."

Shaffer was also charged with reckless driving and improper passing, according to Trooper Fred Hammack. The trooper presented a diagram of the accident scene just west of Big Bend on State Route 5.

It took nearly two hours to seat a jury after 30 jurors were summoned. Most admitted to formulating opinions about the case and were excused by Magistrate Rick Postalwait.

In an opening statement, Prosecutor Morgan said it was reckless conduct on the part of Shaffer, leaving Rodney Wagoner dead on the highway and his son critically injured. "This defendant pulled out at a high rate of speed in a no passing zone .... We'll prove him guilty beyond all reasonable doubt."

Shaffer's attorney Monk said road rage contributed to the incident, possibly the rage of other drivers on Route 5, indicating Shaffer was caught in a (left-of-center) situation with no where to go. "Mr. Wagoner was not wearing a seat belt, according to Trooper Hammack," said Monk, who went on to use that information as the "more accurate cause of death."

Prosecutor Morgan asked jurors to listen to the eyewitnesses and view a series of photos taken by the State Police.

A Calhoun bus driver Leo Craddock testified regarding the inappropriate maneuvering of a black Dodge pick-up a few short minutes prior to the accident. Craddock was traveling west on Route 5 when the vehicle began "tailgating and riding my bumper," trying to pass. Craddock said the driver edged across the line four or five times, before he (Craddock) turned to his residence on Carroll Road.

Dr. Hamm, a West Virginia Medical Examiner testified Wagoner died from multipal-blunt force trauma, with more than one injury that could lead to death. No autopsy was performed.

Big Bend resident Cheryl Prusak testified she and her son Andrew had just returned home when she heard the crash beside her residence. Prusack tearfully recalled going to the vehicles to try and help, stating young Shaffer was in severe pain yelling "My leg hurts! My leg hurts!" She said he was "belligerent" and she lost her patience. "I told him to shut up, someone here was hurt worse than you."

Former Calhoun resident Les Parsons and his family was returning to Ohio when he encountered Shaffer. He first noticed Shaffer's driving while crossing Nighcut Hill "riding too close .... pulling out two or three times before I got to Big Bend."

Parson's then said they reached the "short passing lane" west of Big Bend and he was "riding my ass." He said Shaffer waited until he got to the double line to pass. Parsons told his wife "He's going for it," letting off the gas and applying his brake to avert a possible problem.

"I heard his engine kick in and I tried to get off the road," said Parsons. He told his wife "He (Shaffer) is not going to make it." He said the Shaffer's truck was completely in the left lane, a "dead hit." Parsons told his wife "They're probably all dead."

"I don't know why he didn't pass earlier (broken line)," stated Parsons, who estimated Shaffer's speed as 75 to 80 miles an hour.

EMS provider Bobby Wade said when he arrived on the scene, the two trucks were "melted together," there was "no response" from Rodney Wagoner, who was later pronounced dead.

He went to check on Shaffer, who asked "Did I kill them?" Wade consoled Shaffer saying "We're worried about you, right now." Wade gave testimony that Shaffer's speed odometer was stuck between 80-90 miles an hour, but the testimony was stricken from the record because of technical points.

Tonya Marie Yoak of Big Bend, who witnessed the impact, testified Shaffer was passing in a no passing zone. "I was worried about my kids," she said.

Survivor Brian Wagoner, now 21, testified about the fatal day. "We had gone to church that morning and were returning some borrowed tables to Burning Springs." Wagoner said "I came over the hump and saw a back truck coming at me." He remembered the pain, trapped in the crushed vehicle, unable to walk for about seven weeks. He confirmed neither he nor his father were wearing a seat belt, after questioning by Monk.

Wagoner's widow, Charlotte wept as she recalled getting a call that her family was involved in a wreck. "I dropped the phone," she said, and recalled Cheryl Pursack drove her past the backed-up cars to the scene.

Magistrate Rick Postalwait carefully reviewed the issue of Shaffer testifying in his own behalf, after which Shaffer decided to go on the stand. He told the court he was returning to Ohio after visiting his family when the wreck happened. Prosecutor Morgan asked him if he had been having problems prior to the wreck, which he denied.

Shaffer said he watched the speed limits and did not break the speed limits. "I didn't have enough room to get back over," he said. He then stated his steering wheel "locked up," Prosecutor Morgan asked "When did you dream that up, today?" Shaffer said he was traveling 50-55 at the time of impact.

Shaffer went on to indicate his girlfriend apparently deceived him by signing his name to an official statement, and Trooper Fred Hammack called him a "damned" murderer." He was unhappy with EMS workers trying to remove him, "putting marks on me" as they tried to pull him from his vehicle.

In a concluding statement prosecutor Morgan said there was "Nothing the innocent driver could do. He could not have prevented it." We know he (Shaffer) was traveling at a high rate of speed, with witnesses testifying how "senseless this man's driving was." He instructed the jurors to look at the photos and look at the facts.

Morgan said the seat belt defense was not an issue, Wagoner died from "multiple-trauma" from the crash, many different injuries sustained at impact.

Monk, during final statements, said "Neither side has all the pieces. This crash did not cause Mr. Wagoner's death .... The crash is not what matters," with death being caused by Wagoner not wearing a seat belt and being thown to the highway. She expressed concern an autopsy was not performed.

The defense attorney expressed sympathy toward the Wagoner family in behalf of her client, but Prosecutor Morgan said little remorse was expressed by the defendant on the witness stand.

Mrs. Wagoner said "It has been some really hard months, but maybe we can begin to get better now." Both the Wagoner and Shaffer families were at the day-long trial. She said community members have been very supportative of her family.

Young Shaffer collapsed in tears in the arms of his family. After the juror's decision, he was cuffed and taken to regional jail, pending further appeals.

SEE ARCHIVES HUR HERALD 3/25/02


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