Investigation continues into May church van crash that killed 4

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @DinwiddieMonitr
Posted: October 7, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

May 2019 crash left 4 Blackstone churchgoers dead, others injured

DINWIDDIE – Several months after four churchgoers were killed as the van they were riding in was struck by a pick-up truck hauling metal, the investigation into the deadly crash remains ongoing along with the question from the community on if additional charges could be filed in the case.

In an interview, Virginia State Police Sgt. Keeli Hill confirmed the case remains open as they continue to await various reports tied to the investigation into the May 29 crash along U.S. Route 460 at Zion Road as a group of parishioners were on their way to Mount Zion Baptist Church for an evening of services.

“In a lot of fatal accidents, it takes several weeks for the medical examiner’s office to finalize their reports and get us the toxicology reports, so we state that it remains under investigation,” she explained.

According to authorities at the time of the crash, a dozen members of Blackstone’s Shiloh Baptist Church were making their way into Mount Zion Baptist Church’s parking lot, slowing down on U.S. Route 460 to make a right turn into the church’s parking low when a Ford F-450 pickup truck carrying a trailer of metal driven by 47-year-old Robert Lee Allen of Norfolk “failed to stop in time” and struck the van from behind, causing the Ford van to overturn several times before landing on its side.

Witnesses said some people were ejected from the van as a result of the impact.

The truck ended up running off the road and striking a guardrail.

Dinwiddie’s fire and EMS assets made their way to the scene but, despite the efforts of witnesses and those inside the church who rushed outside to help the injured, four people inside the van – James Farley, 87; Wartena Somerville, 36; Delois Williams, 72; and Constance Wynn, 85, all from Blackstone – died at the scene.

Other passengers were either flown and transported via ambulance to various hospitals in the area for treatment of injuries ranging from serious to life-threatening, law enforcement representatives said.

Allen was also taken to the hospital with minor injuries and was eventually charged with a single count of reckless driving, a misdemeanor. Since the May crash, court records show a July 11 hearing in the case was continued until October 3 in Dinwiddie General District Court. In regards to the investigation into the crash, no new information has been released by authorities but, according to Hill, state police remains involved in the case.

“With every crash, we are very thorough [in investigating], we measure the possibility of speed, we do measurements of yaw marks and tire marks,” she detailed. “We get witness statements, as well and these are things we look into with every crash we work.”

Hill added that Virginia State Police has consulted with Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill on this case but, she stressed that such consultation is commonplace.

“That is nothing out of the ordinary,” Hill explained. “When we have big cases with anything we do, including crashes without fatalities, it is a common practice for us to consult with the Commonwealth’s Attorney for everything we do for the most part.”

Speaking with The Dinwiddie Monitor in June following the crash, lead prosecutor Baskervill said her office and state police are working to “identify and obtain all possible evidence to consider in applying Virginia law to this tragedy,” but they were awaiting all evidence to be gathered for proper evaluation.

While no update was available from the Commonwealth’s Attorney office as to the status of the case since June, days after the deadly crash, Baskervill did speak in a general sense about how a prosecutor’s office approaches a criminal investigation that involves a vehicle and fatalities and how it can differ from an investigation involving a firearm or other deadly weapon.

“In any criminal investigation involving a fatality, one focus is the mechanism that caused the death,” the county’s lead prosecutor detailed. “Under Virginia law, which generally accords with shared basic principles of common sense and logic, the mechanism that caused the death becomes evidence we use to evaluate criminal intent.”

“For instance,” Baskervill explained, “with a deadly weapon like a firearm, generally speaking the law grants an inference of malice, intent to kill. A vehicle is different” noting, in most cases, the vehicle is not a weapon, but instead simply a method of transport from one location to another.

“So, if a crash results from an accident where there was no specific intent to slay someone, then we consider other areas of criminal law and other standards of criminal intent,” she detailed. “Criminal intent can exist without an intent to kill. That said, blame and responsibility are not the same as criminal intent, and Virginia law does not equate civil liability or negligence with criminal culpability. For a crime to occur requires a criminal act and a criminal intent.”

If investigators don’t have direct evidence of criminal intent, Baskervill said they then look at circumstantial evidence and evaluate it to see exactly what that evidence shows and consider that against Virginia law, and what they might pursue prove, or persuade in court with evidence that would be admissible in court. Baskervill admitted vehicle-related fatalities and the ensuing investigation can be complicated.

“Honestly, sometimes this is rather simple and straightforward, and other times it is quite complicated,” she explained. “A vehicle-related fatality is complicated because we review all the circumstances with a fine-tooth comb to consider criminal intent, its presence or its absence. We have to set aside the emotion of tragedy and make thoughtful, informed, professional, and ethical decisions based on evidence, facts and laws.”

“Prosecutorial decisions, law enforcement decisions, necessarily occur on a different plane than grief, sorrow, and loss, which are very real and heart-wrenching no matter what,” the prosecutor closed.

Court records show Allen is scheduled to return to Dinwiddie General District Court this week for a hearing on his reckless driving charge.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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