Gregory J. Lamoureux, Courier Express/pool photo
ST. ALBANS — Maria Carlson sobbed as she approached her defense attorney in Franklin County Superior Court Tuesday.
Handcuffed, Carlson struggled to pull tissues from a box. The 35-year-old, of Swanton, looked back at her family – filling several rows of court benches – before facing Judge Robert Mello.
Through public defender Steve Dunham, Carlson pleaded not guilty to two counts of grossly negligent operation with a fatality resulting. She was then released on $50,000 bail and a number of conditions.
Carlson’s charges are a result of a car accident on Route 7 around 12:30 p.m. last Thursday. Her Toyota Tundra truck crashed into a car, killing its occupants, Alburgh residents Diane Bohannon, 68, and Robert Benjamin, 67.
Carlson silently cried throughout her arraignment. The two charges brought against her each carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison and $15,000 in fines.
Franklin County State’s Attorney Heather Brochu asked that Carlson be held on $100,000 bail and with numerous conditions of release. These included a 24-hour curfew, no contact with the Bohannon and Benjamin families, participation in a substance abuse program, no driving, and no illegal purchase or possession of a regulated drug.
Brochu argued that due to the severity of the felony charges brought against Carlson, she was a flight risk.
“The seriousness of the charges – I think that creates a risk of flight,” she said.
Dunham, however, argued that was not the case. In addition to having no prior criminal record, he said Carlson has all her ties to Vermont.
“Maria has been in Vermont since age eight,” he said. He added that she has two children, ages 2 and 16, three sisters and her mother here.
“Her mother, I believe, is seated behind me,” said Dunham.
“She has significant ties to this community,” he said. “I submit that she’s not a risk of flight. She has no resources other than what she has here.” And bail, said Dunham, was not necessary.
“I would ask again that you would impose the conditions of release,” he said. In reference to the $100,000 bail, Dunham added, “she does not have those kind of resources.”
Judge Mello took a few moments in his chambers to consider the matter. While she waited, Carlson looked back at her family and mouthed, “I love you” to each of them.
When Mello returned, he asked Dunham if he had anything further to say. Dunham pointed out that Carlson has been going through the intensive outpatient program (IOP) at Howard Center.
“She appeared to be willing and desirous … of rehab,” said Dunham.
The judge then explained the reasoning for his decision, beginning with the facts about Carlson’s lack of a criminal record and then the seriousness of the charges she now faces, and the risk of flight those pose.
In addition, Mello mentioned Vermont State Police affidavits filed in the case. “[They are] suggesting that Ms. Carlson was in rehab recovery,” he said. “And yet track marks were noted in both of her arms, suggesting that after she was just released from rehabilitation and was apparently using again immediately after.”
Mello said that the court would impose $50,000 bail, as well as the conditions of release suggested by Brochu. In the meantime, Dunham and the state could discuss Carlson going to another drug rehabilitation center.
A status conference was scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 8:30 a.m. at Franklin County Superior Court. With that, Judge Mello left the courtroom, and Carlson was led away, giving a little wave to her family as she left.
Funerals for the two victims of the accident are to take place on Thursday and next Monday.
Vermont State Police determined that Carlson’s truck left the roadway near Woods Hill Road, struck a telephone pole, continued through a front yard, returned to the road and crossed into the southbound lane, where it hit the other car head-on.
A witness told Vermont State Police that Carlson appeared to driving about 100 mph prior to the collision.
One witness told police that when he went to check on Carlson after the crash, he noticed a needle and needle cap on the truck floorboard. A woman claiming to be her cousin also stopped in traffic and told VSP that Carlson had recently been released from a drug rehabilitation center.
According to affidavits submitted for Carlson’s preliminary hearing last Friday, while being treated at Northwestern Medical Center for critical injuries, Carlson was administered Narcan, an opiate-overdose reversal drug. Nurses also found fresh “track marks,” or alleged needle injection marks, on her arms.
When Carlson regained consciousness following the Narcan administration, she told police she didn’t know what happened, and repeatedly asked why she was in the hospital. According to court documents, when told she had been in a horrible accident that left two people dead, Carlson began crying hysterically.
Waiving her rights, Carlson agreed to give a blood sample for drug testing. Further DUI-related charges could be filed pending toxicology results expected in two weeks.