BATH — The Jeep that was pulling a haunted hayride that crashed in 2014, killing a 17-year-old girl and injuring more than 20 others, was poorly maintained and not safe for travel, according to two investigators who have studied the vehicle and testified Friday at the trial of the man driving it that night.

Given the extensive wear-and-tear on the 1979 CJ-5 Jeep, David York, an inspector for the Maine State Police, compared its use that night to a game of Russian Roulette.

“It’s not if (a mechanical failure was going to happen),” York said. “It was when it would happen. It was bound to happen.”

David Brown, 56 of South Paris, was operating the Jeep on the night of the fatal accident.

He was employed by Harvest Hill Farms in Mechanic Falls where the accident occurred in October 2014 and stands trial this week and next on a misdemeanor charge of reckless conduct. Messalonskee High School student Cassidy Charette died in the crash during a hayride at the farm.

Prosecutors from Androscoggin County are trying to prove that Brown consciously disregarded the risks associated with the Jeep he used to tow the haunted hayride.

But Brown, who will take the witness stand in his own defense next week, maintains that he was unaware of the Jeep’s mechanical issues, his attorney said in opening remarks Thursday.

Since Brown was first interviewed about the crash, he has told investigators it was the result of a sudden and catastrophic failure of the brakes, and not something he could have anticipated.

On Friday, the second day of the trial, jurors heard testimony from several of those investigators, as well as two women who also worked at the hayride in 2014.

When York performed his mechanical autopsy of the Jeep several days after the crash, he testified Friday, he found very little brake fluid in the car. York also couldn’t find any leaks in the braking system, leading him to believe the fluids had not been replaced in some time, he said.

The low fluid levels, combined with a frozen brake adjuster, would have made it harder for Brown to engage the brakes that night. But it also would have been obvious that something was wrong with them, York said.

“That vehicle was unsafe, period, and it shouldn’t have been driven,” York said. “If he didn’t have brake fluid, he’s pumping air.”

Wade Bartlett, a mechanical engineer from New Hampshire who analyzes vehicle crashes, also testified on Friday.

There were several factors that could have led to the brake failure Brown experienced, Bartlett said: the steep grade of the hill he had just started to drive down, the trailer loaded with 23 people that was almost twice the weight of the Jeep, the previous degradation of the car’s brakes.

Brown, who is a commercially licensed driver, should have been able to recognize the issues with the Jeep’s brakes before the accident, Bartlett said.

Several other details about the hayride crash emerged during the testimony Friday.

Keri Dekastrozza, an employee of the Mechanic Falls hayride, had ridden in the Jeep with Brown the night before the crash, she said Friday. At the time, he said something about the Jeep’s brakes, Dekastrozza recalled.

“He said the brakes were a little soft,” she recounted, “but it didn’t sound like there was any concern in his voice.”

Upon further questioning, Dekastrozza said she had not been concerned by the comment.

“I actually wanted to get back on and ride again,” she added.

In his opening remarks on Thursday, Brown’s attorney, Allan Lobozzo, said Brown does not recall making those comments about the brakes on the eve of the crash.

But if he did say something along those lines, it might have been in the character of the haunted hayride, where actors tried to scare participants, Lobozzo said.

Also on Friday, an investigator from the state fire marshal’s office, Christopher Stanford, said that Brown told him he had driven the haunted hayride course approximately 100 times in the last couple of years.

Other drivers at the course use tractors, but Brown chose to use the Jeep in October 2014 because it was heated inside and the weather was cold outside, and Brown liked its appearance, he allegedly told Stanford.

Brown had already driven around the course in the Jeep several times in the week before the crash, he told Stanford, including three complete rotations on the night of the crash.

But after the trailer Brown was pulling on the third rotation got a flat tire, employees of the hayride hooked a different trailer onto the Jeep. That was the trailer he was pulling when the crash occurred, Stanford said Brown told him.

Brown did not specify if he helped change the trailer, Stanford added.

A woman who worked was on the hayride when it crashed also spoke Friday.

Kayla Lord, who worked as a narrator on the ride and was injured during the crash, said Brown had seemed concerned about safety after the flat tire, but Lord, who is now 19, did not know Brown well and could not remember many specific details from that week.

Brown’s trial will continue on Monday morning.

A grand jury also has indicted the farm where the crash occurred, Harvest Hill Farms, and a mechanic who worked there.

Like Brown, the mechanic, Philip Theberge, was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of reckless conduct, which is a Class D misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

The farm business has since filed for bankruptcy and has been indicted on charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, driving to endanger and reckless conduct.

The owner of Harvest Hill Farms, Peter Bolduc, has previously said that he had never been told the Jeep had a faulty brake line. Bolduc contradicted statements made by some former employees to investigators who said they had warned him the vehicle was unsafe.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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