UPDATE: MIDDLEBURY — A local man who for the past nine months had been under an active arrest warrant for driving under the influence pleaded not guilty on Monday in Addison County Superior Court (criminal division) to multiple drunk driving-related offenses after he allegedly struck and critically injured two cyclists in Sunday’s Tour de Farms event in Shoreham.
Addison County Judge Robert Mello agreed with Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster’s request that Brian E. Miller, 54, be held on $50,000 bail following his plea, which he made by phone from his room at Porter Hospital. Miller, represented by Addison County Public Defender Jerry Schwarz, allegedly suffers from cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Miller is charged with seven offenses, including two felony counts of driving under the influence, injury resulting; two felony counts of gross negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle, serious injury resulting; one misdemeanor count of driving with a suspended license; and two misdemeanor counts of violating the conditions of his release.
County prosecutors allege that Miller was legally drunk on Sunday morning when he struck cyclists traveling on Route 74 West in Shoreham. The bikers were taking part in the sixth annual Tour de Farms event in which participants visit farms and sample local foods. Authorities allege that Miller injured two cyclists seriously, one of them a 35-year-old man who was tossed onto the hood of Miller’s car and became embedded in the windshield, becoming dislodged only when the vehicle veered off the road and crashed into an apple tree.
Police identified the two victims as Martin Veit, 35, of Moretown, who sustained head trauma, multiple fractures and internal injuries, according to police; and Sophie Gerry, 15, of Williamstown, Mass., who suffered a fractured pelvis. According to VSP, they were taken to Porter Hospital and then transferred to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
Vermont State Police Senior Trooper Justin Busby interviewed several witnesses at the scene. In his court affidavit, Busby alleges Miller was traveling east on Route 74, when he allowed his vehicle to cross into the westbound lane “for several hundred yards until it collided with several bicyclists,” including Gerry and Veit. Police estimate Gerry was thrown 8 to 12 feet after impact, while Veit remained lodged in Miller’s windshield until being ejected into the apple tree that Veit struck off the west side of Route 74.
“(Miller) approached me (at the scene) and said, ‘It is all my fault, I hurt these people,’” Busby said in his report.
The police investigation indicates Miller’s vehicle sustained “massive contact damage” to the entire front end, windshield and roof. Several hundred feet of tire tracks were evident leading from the shoulder of the eastbound travel lane to the west shoulder up to the apple tree.
VSP Senior Trooper Peter Dempsey also investigated the incident, and said he learned that Miller had allegedly borrowed the car from his father (with whom he resides in Shoreham) without his permission. Police, at this point, noted that Miller had an active arrest warrant stemming from a 2012 driving under the influence charge for which he had failed to report to court last December. Miller’s license was also under criminal suspension, according to Dempsey’s report.
Dempsey interviewed Miller at the hospital. Miller told Dempsey that he had had one drink — a shot of whiskey, according to court records. An inspection of Miller’s vehicle revealed a whiskey bottle and a preliminary breath test showed Miller’s blood-alcohol content to be 0.095 percent, according to court records. The legal limit in Vermont is 0.08 percent.
“I could see his eyes were bloodshot and watery and his speech was mumbled,” Dempsey indicated in his report. “I also detected a moderate odor of intoxicants.”
Miller told police he believes he suffered a coughing fit while driving and passed out prior to the accident, according to court records.
“The next think he knew, he had struck a tree,” Dempsey’s affidavit states.
When Dempsey asked Miller if he realized he had seriously injured two cyclists, Miller allegedly replied he wished “he was dead and was wanting to kill himself at this point,” according to court records. Police at this point contacted the Counseling Service of Addison County to perform an evaluation, according to court records.
Miller allegedly told police he had had at least three coughing fits during the past two weeks that had resulted in him passing out.
State police said they reminded Miller that he had an active DUI arrest warrant, whereupon authorities report that Miller told them “he was aware of that and he just didn’t want to deal with it.”
Fenster explained there is no formal gathering process for defendants against whom arrest warrants have been filed for missing a court date. The defendant’s status is logged into the state’s law enforcement computer network, and he or she can be arrested when stopped for some other offense. The law enforcement community occasionally conducts sweeps to locate and process defendants with active arrest warrants, Fenster noted.
“Once the warrant is issued, law enforcement is notified, but no one agency in particular is responsible for looking for the person,” Fenster said.
Schwarz asked Judge Mello to lower Miller’s bail from $50,000, noting his client’s medical history and ties to the area.
“He can’t get too far away from his physician and pharmacist,” Schwarz said.
But Fenster argued that Miller had been driving with a suspended license since 1978 and that he did not show up for his court date last December.
“He shouldn’t have been driving at all when this incident occurred,” Fenster said.
Judge Mello agreed to Fenster’s request to keep bail at $50,000, noting that Miller could be looking at up to a 60-year jail term if convicted on all charges.
“The court concludes that $50,000 bail is reasonable in this case,” Mello said.
TOUR ORGANIZERS REACT
Meanwhile, Tour de Farms organizers were saddened by the tragic accident.
“Obviously, this is horrific,” said event co-organizer Lea Calderon-Guthe, manager of the Addison County Relocalization Network. “It’s the last think any of us wanted to happen (Sunday).”
She added safety is a paramount concern among planners of the Tour de Farms, which this year included 12 stops covering 15 farms in Shoreham and Orwell. Six hundred twenty riders participated in this year’s tour, an all-time record. This was the first time there has been a vehicle-cyclist accident, organizers said.
“This is a kind of accident you can’t prepare for,” Calderon-Guthe said, alluding to the alleged drunk driving element. She and others had put up temporary safety signs on Saturday night to warn drivers about the cycling event.
“Safety is our first concern.”
Nancy Schulz, executive director of the Vermont Bike and Pedestrian Coalition, is the other tour co-organizer. She said the tragic accident is further proof that society needs to take more steps to prevent drunk driving.
“This state and country have a problem with people operating motor vehicles while impaired,” Schulz said. “Unfortunately, it seems to be a regular occurrence. I would like to see a serious discussion of strategies to change this situation.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]