Home Vehicle Accidents Relatives of 3 killed while walking in Augusta last year say consequences for driver too light

Relatives of 3 killed while walking in Augusta last year say consequences for driver too light

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Megan Peaslee discusses her frustration with the legal system in June, a year after her mother, Barbara Maxim-Hendsbee, and 1-year-old daughter, Vada-Leigh Peaslee, and their Rosalyn Jean were killed last year in a triple pedestrian fatal car crash in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The driver who allegedly struck and killed three pedestrians including a 1-year-old girl last year in Augusta is due in court this week, but family members of the victims say the consequences he is facing are not nearly severe enough and are outraged he has not had his driver’s license suspended.

Meagan Peaslee, 34, of Windsor, lost her 1-year-old daughter, Vada-Leigh Peaslee, and her mother, Barbara Maxim-Hendsbee, 69,  in the May 20, 2021, crash. The two were walking with Maxim-Hendsbee’s friend, Rosalyn Jean, 62, who was pushing the child in a stroller.

Police identified the driver as Robert Santerre, 57, of Chelsea, who reportedly went off the road and struck and killed the three pedestrians. Meagan Peaslee said Santerre should face a manslaughter charge and jail time, and should have had his license suspended immediately.

Instead, Santerre, who police said admitted falling asleep at the wheel, faces three counts — one for each victim — of a civil charge: motor vehicle violation resulting in death. That charge, if he’s found guilty, does not include any jail time as punishment. The maximum penalty for that violation, under state statutes, is a $5,000 fine and four-year license suspension.

“Not only did he take three lives that day, he changed ours forever,” Peaslee said during a sometimes tearful interview about the crash, its impact on her and her family and the lack of more substantial, criminal charges against the driver. “I feel like, at the very least, he should never drive a vehicle again. And I would not be opposed to him being charged with manslaughter. If jail time is involved, that’s fine. When you’re driving a vehicle, yours and others’ lives are in your hands. And I want people to treat it as such. I want him to know what he did is wrong.”

Peaslee and Amanda Ledoux, daughter of Jean, both said the families were surprised to learn in a meeting with police and district attorney’s office officials that Santerre would be charged only with the civil violation, not with manslaughter or any criminal charges.

They were told the crime did not rise to the level of manslaughter.

“I think he was reckless, I think there was some negligence, but criminal negligence is in the eye of the beholder,” said Ledoux, who is married and has a 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She said the children live in fear that their parents, like their grandmother did, may suddenly die. “I wish there was an opportunity to have a judge and a jury, to see (if he would be convicted of manslaughter). I was shocked that you can make a mistake and kill three people but there is nothing. Losing your license should be a given.

“I don’t need him to go to jail for life. But I feel like he just gets to move on, essentially, and we don’t,” she said. “He made a conscious choice to get in that car. The fact his choices don’t have much consequence, after killing three people, that’s what is shocking about the law.”

Ledoux said Santerre’s sentence should include some form of community service.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said in general a charge of manslaughter requires conduct that is “a gross deviation from the conduct of a reasonable and prudent person. In general, when there is no alcohol or drug use and the speed is only slightly over the limit, a manslaughter crime is not present. The crime is judged on the conduct, not the outcome.”

Santerre did not have any substances in his system at the time of the crash, family members of the victims were told by police.

Walter McKee, an Augusta attorney representing the crash victim’s families, said Santerre “should have been charged with manslaughter, plain and simple. The family was astonished that that never happened.”

He said although Maine does not specifically have vehicular manslaughter in statute, what took place in this incident constitutes manslaughter.

Two women and a 1-year-old girl were killed May 20, 2021, when struck by a vehicle along this stretch of Cony Road in Augusta. A year later, families of the victims say there were shocked to learn the driver still has his license and is not facing criminal charges. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Attempts were unsuccessful to reach Santerre through his lawyer, Roger Brunelle, to see if either wished to comment.

Peaslee and Ledoux both said Santerre, through a note from his attorney to their attorney, apologized after the crash, saying, “I’m sorry and I beg for your forgiveness.”

But Peaslee noted he still pleaded not guilty to the charges against him in court previously, and his plea remains not guilty ahead of his next court appearance. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

Despite both families of the victims advocating, through McKee, that the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles suspend Santerre’s license, a recent driver’s record check indicates his license is still active.

Both Ledoux and Peaslee said if someone is in an accident involving a fatality their license should be suspended immediately, so it can be determined whether the driver is a safety risk.

“This man, responsible for three fatalities, is still on the road,” Peaslee said. “If there is a fatality your license should be suspended immediately. So you can find out if this person is OK to drive or not.”

Emily Cook, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, which includes the Bureau of Motor vehicles, said Santerre was issued a notice of suspension of his license after the state received input from the victims’ families this past May. However, Santerre appealed the suspension July 13, and while an appeal is under consideration state law specifies the suspension is stayed, or delayed, until a decision is issued following an administrative hearing. She said the bureau is still coordinating scheduling details for the hearing, but it is tentatively scheduled for the last week in August.

The proposed suspension, now under appeal, would be for one year.

The only convictions on Santerre’s driving record were in October 2017 for failure to display valid inspection sticker and failure to produce evidence of insurance.

Both families said it’s been a long struggle to cope with the deaths of their loved ones. Peaslee and Ledoux, of Wells, said they see counselors. Both said they think about their moms hundreds of times a day.

Megan Peaslee discusses her frustration with the legal system in June, a year after her mother, Barbara Maxim-Hendsbee, and 1-year-old daughter, Vada-Leigh Peaslee, and their Rosalyn Jean were killed last year in a triple pedestrian fatal car crash in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Peaslee said she’s very involved in grief support groups. She said the community support that followed the deaths helped.

Peaslee, of Windsor, and her husband are expecting a child.

Peaslee said they’ve gotten an insurance settlement following the accident, and she does not plan a civil lawsuit against Santerre.

In addition to grieving and trying to continue on with their lives, they said they also feel they need to try to change Maine law so other families do not end up in similar situations. They want the state to adopt laws against knowingly driving while tired. And Peaslee said Maine, as other states have, should lower its threshold for a manslaughter charge so prosecutors would not have to prove criminal negligence for a driver to be charged.

“If there are no consequences then we as a society are saying it’s OK, it’s the norm, you should just go ahead and drive tired,” Ledoux said. “If the consequences for drowsy driving and hurting someone are prison, then people are going to think about it more before they do it.”

Ledoux also advocates for more roads to include centerline rumble strips, meant to alert a sleepy driver who strays over the centerline.

Peaslee and Ledoux said police told them Santerre was going 17 mph over the speed limit for Cony Road when he drifted across the centerline, off the opposite side of the road and into the three pedestrians who, a police report notes, were off the road. They said officials may have considered criminal charges if his speed had been higher, above the standard for criminal speed, or 30 mph or more over the speed limit.

Police told family members Santerre had worked a shift at Shaw’s supermarket and was home for lunch when he decided to drive from his home to the track at Cony High School to walk. They said he told police he knew he was tired before he drove. The accident site is about 3 miles from his home.

 



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