LEWISTON, Maine — The Mechanic Falls business where a Messalonskee High School student was killed last fall in a hayride accident was indicted Wednesday on manslaughter and other criminal charges by the Androscoggin County grand jury.
Harvest Hill Farms, where the accident occurred, the driver who was operating the Jeep that pulled the hayride flatbed and the mechanic who serviced the Jeep were indicted after the grand jury considered evidence over the past three months.
The Androscoggin County district attorney’s office did not seek an indictment against the farm’s owner, Peter J. Bolduc Jr., 49, of Mechanic Falls, according to a news release issued when the indictments were issued.
The company was indicted on one count each of the following charges: manslaughter, a Class A crime; aggravated assault, a Class B crime; driving to endanger, a Class C crime; and reckless conduct, a Class D crime.
The driver of the Jeep, David Brown, 55, of South Paris, who was injured in the rollover accident, and mechanic Phillip Therberge, 38 of Norway were indicted on one count each of reckless conduct, a Class D crime.
District Attorney Andrew Robinson mistakenly released information Wednesday that said Brown faced more serious charges. The prosecutor said that a clerical error led to inaccurate information being released to the media.
“These indictments represent the next step in our pursuit of justice for the many victims of this crash,” he said Wednesday said in announcing the indictments.
Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died and 22 others were injured Oct. 11 when a Jeep pulling a hay wagon went out of control and sent the wagon carrying passengers careening down a hill, according to a previously published report.
Charette was on the hayride with seven other students from Messalonskee High School in Oakland when the Jeep went down a hill about 8:30 p.m., struck a tree and overturned during the farm’s Gauntlet Haunted Hayride.
Investigators pointed to mechanical problems with the late-model Jeep and experts questioned whether it was hauling too heavy a load, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.
The girl’s parents, Monica and Randy Charette of Oakland, issued a statement after the indictments were announced.
“Our family respects the court system and we support the decision of the grand jury,” it said. “We have watched this process from the sidelines, and have not tried to influence the decisions of prosecutors. Instead, we continue to place our trust in officials to take the steps they feel are right. There are many possible outcomes to this tragic case for everyone involved, and we are prepared to accept all of them.”
The couple said that they believe “people should be held accountable for the decisions they make that affect the health and safety of others.”
“But for us, the bottom line is this — in the end, we are still in the same place,” the Charettes said. “Living in a life we no longer recognize without our beautiful, loving, inspiring, amazing Cass. We are left with lifelong yearning and grief. The excruciatingly disappointing truth is that nothing can ever change that, because nothing can bring her back.”
If the company is convicted of the most serious crime of manslaughter, its owner could not be imprisoned but the firm could be fined up to $100,000. Brown faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 if convicted of manslaughter.
Theberge faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000 on the reckless conduct charge.
In a separate court action, Bolduc’s firm, Andover Covered Bridge LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 2, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents. The land and buildings at Hanover Hill Farms on Route 26 are owned by the firm.
Of the 19 creditors named in the bankruptcy petition, three of the claims are from people who have filed personal injury claims against Bolduc because of the accident, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal. Charette’s estate was not listed.
The family’s attorney, Jodi Nofsinger of Portland, said Wednesday that she has filed a notice of claim, the first step before filing a civil lawsuit, against Bolduc. Nofsinger said that it should have been listed in the bankruptcy filing.
Bolduc also listed the town of Mechanic Falls as a creditor. The farm owes back property taxes of more than $31,000 and nearly $9,200 in personal property taxes, according to the town clerk’s office.
Filing for bankruptcy will not shield Bolduc’s assets from damages that might be awarded as a result of a civil lawsuit, according to Nofsinger. She said that some claims could be covered by the farm’s insurance.
Charette’s death sparked questions at the State House about the safety of hayrides and whether they should be regulated.
The Legislature last month overwhelmingly overrode a veto by Gov. Paul LePage of a bill that created a task force to examine the safety and possible regulations for farm amusement rides similar to Bolduc’s haunted hayride, the Sun Journal reported.
The task force, which will include representatives from the Maine Farm Bureau and the state’s campground association, is expected to offer recommendations for ensuring the safety of those who pay to take a ride at a farm, the Lewiston paper reported. That report is due back to the Legislature in February 2016.
Lawmakers then will decide whether they need to put in place a regime to permit and inspect amusement rides offered at farms.
Nofsinger said Wednesday that Charette’s family supports the study.
“They support anything that can be done to prevent another tragedy that affects another family in this way,” the attorney said.