AUGUSTA — A Windsor man on Wednesday admitted he was under the influence of marijuana and narcotics when the Jeep he was driving struck and killed an Augusta woman walking on the sidewalk along North Belfast Avenue in 2012.
Joshua A. Erskine, 25, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated criminal operating under the influence in the death of 81-year-old Ruth Epperson. Erskine admitted in Kennebec County Superior Court that he was under the influence of Percocet and marijuana on March 30, 2012, when his Jeep hit Epperson as she was out for her daily walk. Epperson died from her injuries five days later.
Under a plea agreement with the Kennebec County district attorney’s office, Erskine faces a maximum of 15 years in prison with all but eight years suspended and four years probation. The agreement allows Erskine and his attorney, Pamela Ames, to argue for less time. Sentencing is expected to take place next month. Erskine will remain free on $5,000 cash bail with a Maine Pre-Trial Services contract to more closely monitor his behavior.
Erskine, wearing a dress shirt and tie, made no comment during the hearing other than to answer standard questions posed by Justice Michaela Murphy to ensure he understood the ramifications of his plea and that he was pleading guilty of his own volition. Erskine acknowledged the facts of the case, as outlined during the hearing by Deputy District Attorney Fern LaRochelle, were true.
Members of Erskine’s family, as well as those of Epperson, attended the hearing. Erskine wouldn’t comment, but Epperson’s children, Ann Young of Fayette and Gerry Epperson of West Gardiner, said the guilty plea will help the family find closure.
“I’m glad to see him plead guilty,” Young said. “We didn’t want to go through a trial.”
Erskine was driving his 1999 Jeep Cherokee east on North Belfast Avenue around 3:30 p.m. when he lost control between James and Pinehurst streets. The Jeep crossed over the westbound lane, hit a parked car belonging to Kathleen Greene and then caromed into Epperson.
A Kennebec County Grand jury in December 2012 indicted Erskine on charges of manslaughter and aggravated operating under the influence. At his arraignment last January, an attorney representing him said the crash was caused by a flat tire as Erskine was driving home from work, taking the same route he took every day.
But LaRochelle said Wednesday that Erskine admitted to police the day of the crash that he had taken two 30 mg Percocet pills around noon that day. Erskine, who did not have a prescription for the pills, said he also had smoked two bowls of marijuana about an hour before the crash.
Maine State Police Trooper Joseph Chretien, a drug recognition expert, noted Erskine exhibited a number of signs of drug intoxication, including slurred speech, physical illness, bloodshot eyes and trouble staying awake.
“He concluded the defendant was under the influence of some kind of intoxicant,” LaRochelle said.
Blood tests revealed oyxcodone, which is a component of Percocet, and oxymorphone, LaRochelle said. The tests also revealed the marijuana component THC.
Police who responded to the crash found pills hidden inside a cigarette pack inside Erskine’s Jeep, LaRochelle said.
Augusta Police Officer Peter Cloutier was driving Erskine to the police department to undergo a breath test when then Kennebec County District Attorney Alan Kelley re-directed Cloutier to the hospital so Erskine could give a blood sample for testing. Cloutier notified Erskine of the destination change as they drove.
“Mr. Erskine told him they would probably find Percocet in his system,” LaRochelle said.
It is unclear exactly why Erskine lost control of the Jeep, though it appears he may have passed out, LaRochelle said.
“As a result of the ingestion of these substances he essentially lost control of his vehicle,” LaRochelle said.
The impact from the Jeep threw Epperson from the sidewalk to the street. She was still lying there and Erskine was standing by his Jeep, when police arrived, LaRochelle said. Epperson was flown to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she was treated for five days, never regaining consciousness before dying from her injuries on April 5, 2012.
She and her husband, Clyde Epperson, would have celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary on Jan. 1. Gerry Epperson said his father continues to feel the loss, especially around the holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
“There’s a sadness about him all the time,” Gerry Epperson said.
Clyde Epperson is in Florida and was not in the court when Erskine pleaded guilty to killing his wife. Young said her father wanted no part of the court proceedings.
“Which is why we are glad it didn’t go to trial,” she said. “He tells me this doesn’t change anything.”
Ruth Epperson had been a nurse at Augusta General Hospital and a 20-year volunteer at the Augusta Food Bank. She loved gardening, quilting and her church, the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, according to family. The Rev. Jonathan Vogel said shortly after Epperson’s death that she had sent quilts all over the world to people in need.
“She had a very caring heart,” Vogel said. “She always had time for other people.”
Ruth Epperson, who walked every day, lived on nearby Caswell Street. She had traversed the section of Belfast Avenue for 44 years before she was hit by Erskine’s Jeep.
“I don’t know why he would take all that stuff and then drive,” Young said.
She commended the police who investigated the crash and found the evidence that lead to Erskine’s plea.
“We’re really thankful for the hard work they did,” she said.
Neither Young nor Gerry Epperson weighed in on Erskine’s possible sentence, but they hope it includes a lengthy probationary period so he will be monitored and received treatment once he is released.
“He’s a young guy,” Gerry Epperson said. “We hope he can seek help and get his life back in order. My mother was a believer in punishment, but she also would forgive you.”
“She was compassionate,” Young said.
Craig Crosby — firstname.lastname@example.org