FATAL ACCIDENT: Police officer denies counts in man’s death

Elodie Reed

By Elodie Reed

Staff Writer

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — Burlington Police Department officer Leanne Werner looked neither left nor right as she entered the Franklin County Superior courtroom Monday.

Werner, 30, of St. Albans, remained stoic as she was arraigned and pled not guilty to charges of driving under the influence of alcohol with a fatality resulting and grossly negligent operation of a vehicle with serious bodily injury resulting.  She was cited following an accident the evening of Sunday, July 12, when, as she drove along Lower Newton Road, she allegedly crashed head-on into the car of Omer Martin, 74, and his wife, Jane Martin, 73, both of St. Albans.

When emergency personnel responded to the scene on Lower Newton Road, they had to extricate both Werner and the Martin couple. Werner sustained no serious injuries, though the Martins were transported to Northwestern Medical Center (NMC).

According to police affidavits, Omer Martin, who had numerous injuries to his spleen, a rib, his left kidney, legs, arms and hands, was stabilized and transferred to University of Vermont Medical Center, where he died from health complications on Saturday.

Jane Martin was treated at NMC for fractures to her hand and later released.

Half a dozen Martin family members sat quietly and trying to hold back tears in court yesterday,. Just prior to Werner approaching Judge H. E. VanBenthuysen, the Martins’ daughter, Lynn Mahler, stood up with the rest of her family to move from the right side of the court to the benches on the left.

“I need to be on this side,” Mahler whispered. “I want her to know who we are.”

Mahler and her family watched intently as Werner, represented by Burlington lawyer Frank Twarog, briskly walked down the center of the courtroom and to the right when her case was called.

Proceedings lasted just several minutes. As the first order of business, Franklin County state’s attorney Jim Hughes agreed to VanBenthuysen dismissing the civil license suspension attached to the case. This is Werner’s first offense, and Hughes said her blood-alcohol-content (BAC) read .074 percent at the St. Albans Police Department station. That is below the legal limit of .08 percent.

According to police affidavits, the call for the accident came in at 5:16 p.m. that day. Because initial SAPD and Vermont State Police investigations showed that Werner’s westbound vehicle crossed the road’s double yellow center lines and struck the Martins’ eastbound car, police asked her to take a preliminary breath test (PBT).

At 6:16 p.m., an hour after the accident, Werner’s sample provided a .081 percent BAC. She gave another breath sample at the police station at 7:04 p.m., almost two hours after the crash, which came in as .074 percent, according to police.

Police affidavits indicate that Werner, who is listed at five feet and 110 pounds, allegedly drank three Cobalt Blue Light beers and a cocktail by herself between noon and 4 p.m. that day.

Probable cause

Following the civil suspension dismissal, Twarog also questioned whether there was evidence of probable cause for the first count – driving under the influence of alcohol with a fatality resulting.

“Count one alleges the causation, in effect, of the fatality,” said Twarog. He added that police reports indicate that Omer Martin died from medical complications during treatment, and he asked that Werner not be arraigned on that charge until a medical examiner’s report was available.

Completion of an autopsy had been expected on Sunday or Monday.

Hughes disagreed with waiting on the charge, citing the supplemental police affidavit that describes the accident and resulting injuries as reason enough for probable cause.

“[It] lists the many serious injuries that Omer Martin sustained in the crash – it’s a direct connection,” said Hughes.

Affidavits allege that Werner was on a drive to St. Albans Bay and back when the crash occurred between her car and the Martins’ on Lower Newton Road in the area of Brigham Road. According to the affidavit, Werner told a witness and later police that she had been reaching for her sunglasses at the time, and believed her car was traveling 30 mph.

Following an investigation at the scene, police asked for Werner’s cell phone and a PBT. Affidavits state that Werner hesitated before both were taken.

Due to Werner’s hesitation, police asked her to participate in field sobriety tests. According to court documents, she showed six clues during the “horizontal gaze nystagmus” (HGN) test that indicated a certain level of intoxication.

Following her arrest and processing at the SAPD station, Werner was released with her citation to appear in court yesterday.

Police later spoke with a second witness to the accident, who said that she was at a pool party at her house when she heard the crash occur. She told police that “nobody heard squealing tires caused by heavy braking, before the crash.”

The charges

Judge VanBenthuysen upheld that there was probable cause in Werner’s case, and she was charged on two counts: driving under the influence of alcohol with a fatality resulting and grossly negligent operation of a vehicle with serious bodily injury resulting.

Werner pleaded not guilty to the charges. She was released on several pretrial conditions, including no contact with the Martin family.

As the Judge announced Werner was free to go after she signed her conditions of release, Mahler made a small noise of outrage. “Are you kidding me?” she said. “She gets to go home.”

Werner walked out of the courtroom quickly after her arraignment, once again just looking straight ahead.

An off-duty member of the Burlington Police Department on the date of the crash, Werner has been placed on administrative leave. According to the BPD, an investigation into potential criminal conduct and her compliance with internal department policies will begin once the investigation into the crash is complete.

After signing her conditions of release, Werner silently made her way past media outside the courthouse. She and Twarog declined to comment.

It wasn’t until she reached the courthouse parking lot that Werner looked right and stared right towards the cameras before quickly turning away.

Editor’s note: A photo caption accompanying the article, “Police officer Denies counts,” in Tuesday’s Messenger mistakenly identified the woman leaving Franklin County Superior Court, Criminal Division as Leanne Werner. However, sources at the courthouse have since indicated that the woman — photographed by the Messenger and other news organizations departing with the defendant’s lawyer – and mentioned as looking at the cameras in the last line of the newspaper story – is Werner’s sister. Leanne Werner reportedly exited through the courthouse’s handicapped-accessible door. The accompanying photograph is of Leanne Werner during the court hearing.