2 witness accounts raise question: Did driver try to flee 2018 North Adams fatality?
NORTH ADAMS — A police report in court documents quotes witnesses who say the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art might have tried to leave the scene of a fatal accident last summer.
Joe Thompson entered a not guilty plea Wednesday against a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide in the crash.
Steven Fortier, 49, of North Adams, died as a result of injuries he suffered after his motorcycle collided with Thompson's SUV.
Two witnesses told police that it appeared that Thompson might have been trying to leave the scene after the collision, which occurred on Church Street in North Adams shortly after 10 p.m. July 20, 2018.
One said they spoke to Thompson after the crash and told him not to leave.
Police tried to clarify the witness statements and asked if it were possible that Thompson was only trying to move his vehicle out of the road.
"Both stated that they believed by the way he attempted to operate the Audi that he was trying to leave," according to a police report from North Adams Police Officer David Sherman that was part of newly released court documents.
It later was determined that Fortier's blood alcohol concentration was approximately 0.28, more than three times the legal 0.08 limit to operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts. But Fortier's level of intoxication didn't prevent the case from moving forward beyond a May 9 show-cause hearing heard before Clerk Magistrate Kenneth Chaffee.
"The fact that the motorcycle was being operated by a drunk driver does not necessarily excuse Thompson's choice to leave his lane of travel and enter the lane of oncoming traffic," part of the decision from Chaffee reads. "In hindsight, Thompson's choice to maneuver his vehicle into the southbound lane, rather than to stop or drive elsewhere, resulted in the collision and the death to Fortier."
Thompson, who is a member of The Eagle's advisory board, was arraigned Wednesday morning in Northern Berkshire District Court before Judge Paul Vrabel and released on his own recognizance.
A pretrial conference was set for Aug. 9. If convicted of the misdemeanor charge, Thompson, 60, faces a minimum of 30 days and up to two-and-a-half years in jail and a 15-year loss of his driver's license.
Thompson and a passenger, Jodi Joseph, Mass MoCA's director of communications, were not injured in the crash.
According to court records, the two told police they were driving north on Church Street when they saw a single headlight approaching from the opposite direction around the bend where Ashland Street merges with Church Street. They stated that they saw the headlight leave the southbound lane and enter the northbound lane. Thompson then veered left into the opposite lane, but the motorcycle turned back into the southbound lane before the vehicles collided.
Thompson said he checked that Joseph was unhurt and asked her to call 911 while he checked on Fortier, who was described as having significant injuries.
Fortier was breathing when police arrived about 10:10 p.m. but had injuries to his arms and legs, was bleeding from his neck and had suffered massive trauma to his face, according to court records.
Fortier's vest, one of his boots and his helmet were found several feet away. His other boot was found on the sidewalk.
Based on evidence at the scene and witness information, investigators disputed Thompson and Joseph's account of events.
Sherman said Thompson's explanation that Fortier might have corrected himself and swerved back into the southbound lane wasn't supported by the evidence.
"Due to my observations, this explanation did not seem valid and could not be backed up by the road evidence on scene," he wrote.
North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood said his department had to wait for a reconstruction report to be completed in collaboration with the Massachusetts State Police before deciding whether to file charges.
"Unfortunately, some of these accidents which are serious in nature take longer to conclude because of the number of agencies that are involved," he said.
Thompson's attorney, Timothy Shugrue, declined to comment after Wednesday's brief arraignment, except to say he likely would be filing motions in the case, in addition to those that already have been filed seeking police and accident reconstruction reports.
In earlier statements to The Eagle, Shugrue maintained his client's innocence.
"I'm very confident that he's innocent and I'm very confident it's going to be found that way," he said. "Joe Thompson did everything he could do to avoid this tragedy."
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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