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Driver charged in wreck that killed 11-year-old-girl

Feb 1, 2012 - By Christina George Staff Writer

The Lander man who authorities say was the driver of a pickup truck that struck and killed an 11-year-old girl in December has been charged with aggravated vehicular homicide.

In addition to the felony charge, William Dean Barnes, 52, was charged with 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, all four of which are misdemeanors.

Barnes is scheduled to appear Feb. 14 in the Fremont County Circuit Court in Lander to answer to the charges. The hearing will begin at 8:30 a.m.

The felony charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The combined misdemeanors carry another 14 months of jail and $1,350 in fines.

Authorities say Barnes was traveling eastbound on U.S. Highway 26 at a speed of 57 mph when he struck Wind River School sixth-grader MaKayla Marie Strahle as she was crossing the roadway to her home after exiting the school bus.

Barnes was the sole occupant of the 2005 GMC pickup truck at the time of the accident, which happened at about 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 near milepost 89, about five miles east of Crowheart.

Although there was heavy fog reported, Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper Erik D. Shoden said in an affidavit that conditions at the scene were mostly clear, with road conditions being dry.

A portable breath test administered to Barnes at the scene indicated he was not under the influence of alcohol at the time of the fatal crash.

Investigation

In his affidavit filed Jan. 23, Shoden said he observed Barnes's truck parked in the eastbound shoulder lane when he arrived at the scene. The vehicle had visible damage to both front corners.

Emergency medical services, firefighters and sheriff's deputies also responded to the call, as did the victim's stepfather and deputy, Dan Sperry.

Sperry was reportedly in his living room watching television when his stepdaughter was hit.

"He stated he saw the red flashing lights of the bus and knew that his daughter was home," Shoden's report stated. "He then heard a loud thump sound after that."

Sperry got to the scene after a boy from the bus went to his house and told him what happened.

Shoden said Sperry was holding the child in his arms when he looked up at him and told him the girl "was gone."

MaKayla was pronounced dead at the scene. Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan later ruled the cause of death as blunt-force trauma.

Shoden's report included several interviews with the bus driver, Fred Peterson. Peterson said he activated the appropriate flashing lights as he approached the girl's stop and when he opened the door and let her off the bus.

As the girl walked past the left front fender of the bus, Peterson said he noticed a truck traveling east down the highway. He told Shoden he thought the truck would slow down and stop.

According to Peterson, MaKayla noticed the approaching vehicle and began hurrying across the highway when she was struck near the fog line by the front right corner of the truck.

Her body was thrown 128 feet before coming to rest in the south barrow ditch. After striking the girl, Barnes's truck traveled another 315 feet before coming to rest.

Two boys on the school bus told police Peterson had the bus's red lights activated when they witnessed a truck hit their peer.

Barnes told police the thick fog that evening had limited his visibility to about 300 feet. He stated he saw the school bus ahead of him, but did not notice the red overhead flashing lights and that it looked as though the bus had its turn signals activated.

He estimated his speed at about 40 mph, which was later determined to be inaccurate.

There was no indication the truck's brakes were touched within eight seconds before the crash.

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