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Criminal charges unlikely against driver involved in deadly van crash

DINWIDDIE – County prosecutors say the driver of a pickup truck that collided with a van full of church parishioners last year, killing four, is not expected to face more serious charges due to currently available evidence not being sufficient to move forward with criminal charges.

According to Dinwiddie Commonwealth Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill, while her office continues to investigate the May 2019 crash along U.S. Route 460 at Zion Road, the evidence Virginia State Police have provided them doesn't support charging Robert Lee Allen, the driver of the pickup truck, with anything more than the misdemeanor reckless driving offense he has already been charged with.

"I have not received any information that would indicate criminal intent beyond the reckless driving charge," she explained last week, noting the case will continue through the county's general district court unless new evidence was made available.

In the early evening hours of May 29, 2019, 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 lot when a Ford F-450 pickup truck carrying a trailer of metal struck the van from behind, causing it to overturn several times before landing on its side.

The impact of the crash caused some of the van's passengers to be ejected, according to witnesses.

Dinwiddie Fire and EMS units responded quickly along with parishioners inside Mount Zion Baptist Church to render aid to the injured but 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.

The remaining passengers were taken via ambulance or medical helicopter to area hospitals to treat a range of injuries. Allen, the driver of the pickup truck, was also taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

Days later, he would be charged with a lone misdemeanor count of reckless driving.

In the months after the crash, The Dinwiddie Monitor reached out to Virginia State Police, the responding agency and lead investigators, for updates on their findings. In October of last year, Sgt. Keeli Hill didn't have any new information to share about the case, but she said the department continues to be involved.

"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 last year. "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."

One year later, the case remains in a similar place as it was in the days following the crash as Allen continues to face a misdemeanor reckless driving charge for his role in the impact. While some in the community have questioned why Allen isn't facing more severe charges, Baskervill, the county's lead prosecutor, explained how state law works for vehicular accidents with fatalities.

"Virginia law really airs on the side of a defendant not being automatically guilty of homicide or maiming if you are in an accident that is, indeed, an accident or doesn't intend to kill or maim," she detailed. "I think that is fair for drivers because accidents are accidents, but I understand it can be hard to grasp when it is your loved ones that are killed."

Baskervill continued, "Criminal law doesn't even begin to address the magnitude of grief, and nothing does. There is no evidence that I have received, and I can find nothing that would indicate any sort of criminal intent beyond reckless driving. I know how important it is for people to have answers."

"I have asked every angle of questions that could locate criminal intent based on my experience and training. I can only prosecute based on the evidence that I have," she said.

Baskervill further detailed her office's efforts to fully evaluate the case as they prepared to move into the prosecution process.

"We were looking for criminal intent, such as the intent to kill or maim. We ruled that out pretty quickly based on the driving behavior and what seemed to be the physical cause of the crash," the prosecutor explained. "Then we look to see if someone in a vehicle case has been so reckless or wanton that a death would be expected. There is no sign of any sort of impairment, be it drinking or drugs, in this case."

She continued, "From there, you look at some potential vehicle defect that was known. It had been discussed that there could have been a problem with the trailer. State police looked at that at my request, and [they] said that was not something that either caused or made the accident worse. So, there was nothing where he was blatantly disregarding the law as far as the weight of the trailer or its functionality."

The prosecutor also looked at whether Allen may have been texting on a cell phone when the crash occurred, but she has not received any information on that inquiry.

"I don't have any information on that one way or the other," she said. "I don't think state police did a search of his phone, and in the absence of information, I have to assume there is no information. There is no evidence, and I have to work on evidence. There is no indication he was texting, so I don't have anything in that regard but, I would consider that to be a game-changer in regards to criminal charges, but no evidence of that has been provided to me."

She stressed the high threshold of evidence required to charge someone criminally is essential to protecting Virginians' rights.

"That is a good thing, and it keeps us all protected where you can't just be arrested because someone is angry," Baskervill remarked. "It is frustrating in individual cases, but there is a threshold that has to be met, and in this case, it isn't even close, and I have no evidence of criminal intent."

Even still, the prosecutor said her office continues to evaluate the case and look for any new evidence that could affect potential charges going forward.

As for Allen, his case will continue to move through the county's general district court.