CONCORD, NH (AP) — A jury on Tuesday acquitted a commercial truck driver of causing the deaths of seven motorcyclists in a horrific head-on collision in northern New Hampshire that exposed fatal flaws in the processing of license revocations across states.
Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, of West Springfield, Massachusetts, was found innocent on seven counts of manslaughter, seven counts of negligent homicide and one count of reckless conduct in connection with the June 21, 2019, crash in Randolph. Jailed since the crash, he appeared to wipe away tears as the verdict was read and briefly raised his index finger skyward before leaving the courtroom.
Jurors deliberated for less than three hours after a two-week trial during which prosecutors argued that Zhukovskyy — who had taken heroin, fentanyl and cocaine earlier on the day of the crash — repeatedly swerved back and forth before the collision and told police he caused it. But a judge dismissed eight charges related to whether he was impaired, and his attorneys blamed the lead biker, Albert “Woody” Mazza Jr., saying he was drunk and not looking where he was going when he lost control of his motorcycle and slid in front of Zhukovskyy’s truck.
“Our hearts go out to the victims and their families. Our trial team did an excellent job and we firmly believe that the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said in a statement.
Zhukovskyy’s family, some of whom attended the trial, said in a statement they were grateful to God, the court and the defense attorneys for an “honest and fair trial.”
“Our family expresses its deepest condolences to the family and friends affected by this tragedy,” the family said, describing him as a “very honest and kind man. He would never have done anything to hurt anyone.”
Zhukovskyy, who was born in Ukraine, remained jailed as of late Tuesday afternoon. It is unclear when he might be released. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued an immigration detainer on him after the crash and that was executed following the verdict, said Ben Champagne, the superintendent at the Coos County Department of Corrections.
ICE said in a statement that Zhukovskyy has been served a notice to appear before an immigration judge and will remain in ICE custody pending the outcome of that appearance. It did not say where he is being held.
All seven motorcyclists killed were members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club. After the verdict, a member of the Marine group reached through Facebook declined to comment. Mazza’s father, also named Albert, said he was stunned.
“Killing seven people and he gets off. That is unbelievable,” said Mazza. He described his son as a “good man” who devoted much of his time to charity, and said it was wrong to pin blame on him.
“It doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “There are seven people dead. There are seven families affected. It’s strange that he didn’t get something.”
The motorcyclists who died were from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island and ranged in age from 42 to 62. They were part of a larger group that had just left a motel along US Route 2 in Randolph.
Killed were Mazza, of Lee, New Hampshire; Edward and Jo-Ann Corr, a couple from Lakeville, Massachusetts; Michael Ferazzi, of Contoocook, New Hampshire; Desma Oakes, of Concord, New Hampshire; Daniel Pereira, of Riverside, Rhode Island; and Aaron Perry, of Farmington, New Hampshire.
In closing statements Tuesday morning, the two sides raised questions about who was more “all over the place”: the trucker accused of swerving back and forth across the road or the eyewitnesses accused of contradicting each other.
“Those witnesses were all over the place about what they recalled and what they claimed to have seen,” said defense attorney Jay Duguay.
Duguay also accused prosecutors of ignoring that their own accident reconstruction unit contradicted their theory that Zhukovskyy crossed into the oncoming lane. An expert hired by the defense, meanwhile, testified that the crash happened on the center line of the road and would have occurred even if the truck was in the middle of its lane because Mazza’s motorcycle was heading in that direction.
“From the beginning of this investigation, the state had made up their mind about what had happened, evidence be damned,” said Duguay, who also highlighted inconsistencies between witness accounts or when witnesses contradicted themselves.
In particular, Duguay suggested that the bikers “shaded” their accounts to protect Mazza and the club. Prosecutor Scott Chase acknowledged some inconsistencies, but asked jurors to remember the circumstances.
“People were covering the dead, trying to save the barely living, comforting the dying. This wasn’t story time,” he said. “They were up here talking about some of the most unimaginable chaos, trauma, death and carnage that we can even imagine three years later. They were talking about hell broke open.”
Witnesses were consistent, he argued, in describing the truck as weaving back and forth before the crash. That behavior continued “until he killed people,” Chase said.
“That’s what stopped him. It’s not that he made some responsible decision to start paying attention or do the right thing,” he said. “The only thing that stopped him was an embankment after he tore through a group of motorcycles.”
Chase called the attempt to blame Mazza a “fanciful story” and “frivolous distraction,” while reminding jurors that Zhukovskyy, who didn’t testify at trial, told investigators “Obviously, I caused the crash.”
“He was crystal clear from the very beginning that he caused this crash,” Chase said. “That is what he said, because that is what happened.”
Zhukovskyy’s commercial driving license should have been revoked in Massachusetts at the time of the crash because of a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut about two months earlier.
Connecticut officials alerted the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, but Zhukovskyy’s license wasn’t suspended due to a backlog of out-of-state notifications about driving offences. In a review, federal investigators found similar backlog problems in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and at least six other jurisdictions.
Associated Press Writers Michael Casey and Kathy McCormack contributed to this report.