Local prosecutors’ review of deadly church van crash continues

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: June 24, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

DINWIDDIE – As the community tries to make sense of the devastating loss of four churchgoers in a deadly van crash on U.S. Route 460 just after the Memorial Day weekend, the first charges in the case have filed against the driver of the truck that hit the van.

Earlier this month, Virginia State Police announced 47-year-old Robert Lee Allen of Norfolk had been charged with reckless driving in connection with a May 29 crash along U.S. Route 460 at Zion Road that left several people injured and killed four parishioners who were on their way to Mount Zion Baptist Church an evening of worship services.

According to Virginia State Police, 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 left turn into the church’s parking low when a Ford F-450 pickup truck carrying a trailer of metal driven by Allen “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.

This month, Virginia State Police confirmed Allen had been charged with reckless driving but other details, including more information surrounding the crash has yet to be revealed. In an interview, Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said she and her office are continuing to review the case.

“The thorough and intense investigation remains ongoing and is proceeding as robustly as possible,” she said last week. “My office and I continue to work with the State Police to identify and obtain all possible evidence to consider in applying Virginia law to this tragedy. This critical charging decision requires evaluation of all of the evidence, and right now I don’t yet have that.”

When state police announced the charge against Allen, some in the community wondered if there would be more charges filed due to the severity of the crash. While being unable to speak about the particulars of this case, Baskervill explained in a broad sense how a prosecutor’s office looks at a criminal investigation that involves a vehicle and fatalities and how that differs from a traditional investigation involving a firearm or other 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.

While the crash has left a void in the hearts of many after four beloved members of Blackstone’s close-knit community were tragically taken away, the heroism of many inside Mount Zion Baptist Church in the seconds after the crash may have saved more lives as those inside the church preparing for their revival services dropped what they were doing to help and get people away from the devastating scene.

“They all sprang into action,” Mount Zion Baptist Church Pastor Joe Fields detailed. “One of our members is a nurse and they saw one of the people who was ejected from the van so went to help them. Another member who was a nurse helped me take care of some of the people in the van that I was trying to get out. Everyone was bringing water and towels, but unfortunately, four of them passed away.”

“We stopped what we were doing and rendered aid to those people and never looked back for anything. We did the best we could until the rescue squad got there,” the pastor said.

Fields continued, “I had been under the weather myself with serious arthritis but I tell you, I forgot all about my leg and arms hurting as I tried to get those people out,” adding that the church still had a worship and prayer service that evening to provide comfort and safe harbor for those grieving.”

Funerals for those lost have been held over the last several weeks.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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