SHIN POND, Maine — His father and grandfather were in the garage working on a truck, his stepgrandmother was grilling burgers and his uncle was in the house taking a shower when 4-year-old Tanner Morse of Sear sport flipped an ATV he was driving, according to his mother.
“There were adults there and nobody was paying attention,” Pamela Morse of Searsport said recently about the death of her son.
The weight of the 80cc Yamaha four-wheeler crushed the boy’s heart and lungs, she said, recounting the injuries that led to her son’s death on Aug. 7, 2012.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Morse said while holding a thick file that contains everything from his autopsy report to the police case files about her youngest child’s death, as well as pictures of the blond boy smiling, including one of him posing with his older sister.
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy reviewed the case and said this week there will be no criminal charges filed.
“There is no basis for criminal prosecution,” he said Monday. “It doesn’t meet the standard for manslaughter and there is no Title 12 violation that occurred.”
Title 12 includes state laws that cover ATV use. Those under age 10 can only operate an ATV on family land and are not allowed to cross roads, according to laws passed in 2004. Riders under 16 need to take a training course with a parent or guardian to ride off their land or they have to have a parent or guardian with them. Helmets are required for all ATV operators and riders younger than age 18.
Almy added that, “the only person who could be prosecuted is the father, and to me that would make little sense.”
There was “hardly any evidence of [criminal] negligence,” the prosecutor said.
The boy’s father, Cody Morse, reached by phone on Tuesday, said he did not want to comment about Almy’s decision. His voice broke with emotion when he spoke.
Tanner Morse was operating a 2003 Yamaha Raptor on Aug. 6, 2012, on Shin Pond property owned by his grandfather, Craig Morse. The youngster apparently had attempted to drive up an incline and the machine rolled backwards and landed on top of him, a news release from the Maine Warden Service issued at the time of his death states. The machine weighs approximately 240 pounds, according to multiple online sources.
His father found him unconscious about 200 feet from the waterfront home, and the boy’s helmet was found near the machine. Witnesses at the scene said they saw it on his head earlier in the day, the press release states.
The child was transported to Houlton Regional Hospital and a LifeFlight helicopter flew him to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where he died the next day.
“I don’t understand how it’s not negligence, how it’s not criminally negligent,” Pamela Morse said, still grieving her son’s death. She divorced the father of her children a few years ago but kept his surname.
According to Maine statutes, to be criminally negligent a person’s conduct must “involve a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation.”
Morse issued a warning to parents: Keep an eye on children when they operate motorized vehicles and make sure their helmets fit properly and are fastened.
“I am angry, of course, and I just want parents to know this can happen,” Pamela Morse said. Her son died from complications of the traumatic asphyxiation caused by the vehicle being on top of him, she said, reading from his autopsy report.
Her son was unresponsive when found, but “they got his heart beating a little bit in the ambulance,” Morse said.
A total of 18 people have died on ATVs operated in Maine over the last five years, according to data compiled Tuesday by Michelle Ward, a fatal accident system analyst with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.
“We’ve had one so far this year,” she said.
The death of Tanner Morse is not included in the data because he died on family property, Ward said. The state saw four ATV fatalities along trails and roadways in Maine during 2012; four in 2011; three in 2012; five in 2009; and one in 2008 that involved a 16-year-old, the data shows.
Nationally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission received reports of 11,001 ATV-related fatalities between 1982 and 2010, and of those, 2,775, or around 25 percent, involved children under the age of 16, a report issued in December 2011 states.
Maine had 130 ATV-related deaths between 1982 and 2010, with 23 of those occurring between 2007 and 2010, the CPSC report states.
The number of registered ATV users in Maine is steadily increasing, according to the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1993, there were 22,390 registered ATVs in Maine and in 2012 the number was 62,294.