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Barnes takes stand in school bus case; jury deliberating

Nov 16, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

After more than three days of testimony and a judge denying a motion for acquittal, the case against William Dean Barnes is in the jury's hands.

District Court Judge Norman E. Young at 11:40 a.m. Friday submitted the case to the jury for deliberation.

Barnes, 53, of Lander, is charged with felony aggravated vehicular homicide and misdemeanors homicide by vehicle, maximum speed/too fast for conditions, passing stopped school bus with flashing red lights, and exercise of due care by drivers.

The charges stem from Dec. 20 when he was the driver who struck and killed Makayla Marie Strahle, 11, while she crossed Highway 26 in front of her house near Crowheart after exiting a school bus.

Defense attorney Devon Petersen of Lander and Fremont County deputy attorneys Kathy Kavanagh and Thomas Majdic spent more than two hours Friday morning making their closing statements.

The final remarks followed two and a half full days of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses called to testify.

Majdic told jurors prosecutors showed evidence that supported Barnes committed the crimes.

"The defendant made the choice to drive in a reckless manner," Majdic said.

Petersen called the incident, "a tragedy of the worst kind."

"He'll never ever be the same, and neither will this family," Petersen said, referring to Barnes and the victim's family.

Petersen pointed out conflicting statements made by some who testified and said there was no evidence presented indicating Barnes knowingly passed the bus.

"What happened here, that's criminal," Kavanagh said, arguing that Barnes turned his truck into a "deadly weapon" by breaking the law.

Kavanagh said Barnes changed his statement several times. She also questioned Barnes's testimony the previous day that the girl leaped out in front of him.

"He has blamed everybody in this county but himself," Kavanagh said, adding that Makayla paid for the risk he took that evening.

Barnes's testimony

An emotional Barnes said if he could, he would trade places with the victim.

"It's an evening I wish to God I could take back," Barnes said.

He made the comment nearly an hour into his testimony Thursday afternoon.

Barnes told Petersen he hasn't had contact with the girl's parents since the incident.

"I just feel it was inappropriate," Barnes said, later adding, "I can only pray for their forgiveness."

Wearing a gray sweater over a white, collared shirt, Barnes sat in the witness box between Judge Young and the jury selected to determine his guilt.

Barnes said he has lived in Lander since 1974, and in 1977 he graduated from Lander Valley High School where he wrestled and played football.

A wrestling scholarship took him to Northwest College in Powell, where he earned an associate's degree.

After graduation, Barnes said he went to work for his father doing road construction statewide before eventually starting his own business in Lander. He still has the business but also works for other local construction companies.

Barnes told jurors he has a son and that his daughter died in 2003.

Dec. 20

Barnes said he left from Lander around 9 a.m. on Dec. 20, in clear conditions, for a post-surgery checkup in Jackson. He said he tore his anterior cruciate ligament the previous January by stepping off a ladder at work.

Barnes testified that it took roughly three hours in his 2005 white Duramax diesel GMC pickup truck to travel the familiar highway to Jackson. He was alone.

Barnes said his use of a cane and leg brace didn't affect his driving because the truck had an automatic transmission

"I like to eat at Bubba's restaurant in Jackson, so I went to Bubba's and had lunch," he said about his arrival in Jackson.

At the doctor's office, Barnes said a nurse informed him the doctor was in an emergency knee surgery. Barnes opted to wait the estimated two hours.

He recalled doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at Kmart and then returning to the doctor's office at 4 p.m.

Barnes said he headed home around 4:30 or 4:45 p.m., noting that the weather was "pretty clear" and the sun was setting.

Fog appears

Weather conditions remained the same, Barnes said, until 10 or 20 miles past Dubois, when he started running into patchy fog. He reduced his speed to 50 or 55 mph, adding that he was not on cruise control.

Barnes said the road was dry, but there was blowing snow on both shoulders.

He encountered patches of fog that was at times "fairly dense," and lowered visibility to as low as a quarter mile.

"I would slow down accordingly," Barnes said.

Barnes said conditions worsened in the Crowheart area, describing snow blowing over the truck's hood that wasn't sticking to his windshield but creating a "screensaver effect."

Barnes testified experiencing steady fog between Crowheart and the place where he struck the girl. He said he felt he was traveling 40 mph at the time.

"I was very focused on the road," Barnes said.

The longtime Wyoming resident said he was somewhat familiar with the road in Crowheart, pointing out that he remembered passing the Crowheart Store that evening.

About four miles later, Barnes recalled encountering thicker fog and blowing snow on the straight and flat highway.

He also saw a vehicle approaching him.

"It was bigger than a car," he said.

About a quarter- to a half-mile away, Barnes said he noticed the vehicle slowing.

Seeing porch lights illuminated on both sides of the road, Barnes said he thought the vehicle was turning into one of the residences.

Given the vehicle's size and that it was a ranching area, Barnes said he thought it was a livestock-hauling or similar vehicle pulling into one of the houses.

Barnes said his focus was not on looking for a turn signal.

"The lights were extremely bright," he said about the oncoming vehicle's headlights.

Getting closer to the vehicle, Barnes said he could see it stopping and assumed it stopped because the driver saw Barnes and was waiting for Barnes to pass before turning.

He remembered diverting his eyes to the fog line because of the vehicle's "extremely bright" headlights. Barnes described a "starring" effect that occurs when his eyes confront bright lights due to an eye surgery years ago similar to laser treatment.

Barnes said he saw the girl from the knees up and carrying a backpack, but it was too late.

"I heard a thump, and I had no time for any reaction," Barnes testified. "It just happened so fast. There was just nothing I could do."

Barnes said he immediately pulled over and ran back toward the girl. The bus driver also was on the road, asking Barnes why he didn't stop.

"I didn't see your lights," Barnes said he told him.

Barnes said he went to the girl and could tell by her injuries that she shouldn't be moved.

He said he took his cell phone from his pocket and attempted to call 911 but his call wasn't going through. He also saw others on scene making the call.

After a brief interaction with the girl's stepfather, Dan Sperry, and not wanting to cause more stress, Barnes said he began walking back to his truck.

He recalled hearing the mother yell to Sperry to get Barnes's license plate number.

"I assure you, sir, I am not leaving the scene," Barnes testified saying to Sperry.

Barnes said he backed up his pickup truck to preserve the scene.

He testified offering to conduct CPR on the girl when the mother yelled that the girl was breathing, but he was turned away.

Once law enforcement arrived, Barnes said he remained in his vehicle, answered questions, and provided documents. He said he also agreed to have information downloaded from his truck to determine speed and other elements of the collision.

Although he was told a blood draw was required, Barnes said police never did one. He was allowed to drive home that night.

In cross-examination, Kavanagh asked Barnes several questions about when he encountered the bus.

Barnes said he never saw the bus's flashing yellow lights before it stopped, and he only saw a speck of red light when he struck the girl. He admitted to not applying his brakes right before encountering the stopped vehicle, but did say he laid off the acceleration pedal as he passed.

Barnes said he believed the girl could have been running across the road when he struck her. The next thing he recalled seeing was her airborne in front of his truck.

Kavanagh also questioned Barnes's testimony about the girl running or jumping out in front of him.

Other testimony

Fremont County School District 6 (Wind River schools) superintendent Diana Clapp testified Thursday about state rules and regulations concerning school buses.

Clapp said to her knowledge there was not a violation of policy made that evening by the bus driver concerning required use of flashing lights.

School District 6 transportation supervisor Kevin Schieffer explained to jurors how a bus's lighting system works.

Schieffer said that when the switch to open the bus door is activated, the vehicle's stop sign and front crossing arm flip out and red lights flash automatically.

He also testified he didn't believe an approaching motorist would be able to tell the color of a bus, but could see "SCHOOL BUS" reflecting from the front top of the vehicle.

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