Breaking: Ledwell given one-year suspended sentence

By: 
Joshua Waddles
Staff Writer

The trial of Ben Ledwell, on charges of negligent homicide in the deaths of Cindy Rhein, Allen Rhein, Anthony Sprankle and Steven Sprankle, concluded Friday with the prosecution presenting its case on Thursday, Jan. 11 and the defense presenting its case on Friday. This accident occurred in 2015 on Highway 7, three miles away from Bismarck, and resulted in Rheign’s vehicle catching fire.

Prosecutor Richard Garrett first called Joan Sitzgnstock to the stand. Sitzgnstock is the mother of the late Cindy Rhein and she told the jurors what sort of person her daughter was. Sitzgnstock said Rheins and her late husband,Bobby Sprankle (who passed away of cancer years prior to the wreck that claimed the life of Cindy Rhein), fostered and then adopted five children, including Anthony and Steven Sprankle. Sitzgnstock said the house was always full of animals when Cindy Rhein was a kid and she became a pet groomer after cosmetology school.

Steven and Anthony Sprankle both had special needs. They worked at Abilities Unlimited and Cindy and Allen Rhein were taking them home from work.

Defense attorney David Crisp expressed his sympathies and asked Sitzgnstock was a part of the civil lawsuit against Ledwell. Sitzgnstock confirmed she was. When asked if she was at the accident, she said she went there after the wreck was cleared.

Paul Woolley

Paul Woolley testified he was driving on Highway 7 when he saw two vehicles go up into the air. He said he pulled up and the van (belonging to Rhein) was on fire and their door was jammed.

He ran back to his trailer and got a cargo strap, then ran back to the van and looped the strap into the door.

Woolley said a deputy had been a short distance behind them, having pulled someone over. He said the person who’d been driving behind his own trailer went back to get that deputy, and the deputy arrived as Woolley got the strap into the door. He said he and the deputy attached the other end of the strap to the deputy’s car and the deputy pulled back, breaking the door loose. A third person aided them and they got Allen Rhein out of the car, but could not get to Cindy Rhein. Woolley said the flames were so thick they couldn’t even tell if other people were in the car.

Allen Rhein was taken away by an ambulance.

Crisp asked if he’d seen the vehicles before the impact. Woolley said no, he saw them just as they collided. He also said the fire erupted immediately.

Woolley said they helped the deputy get Ledwell out of his truck. He said Ledwell couldn’t walk, but they didn’t want to leave him in the truck because something was leaking from it. He said Ledwell was bleeding from the face.

Woolley said he tried to call 911 but couldn’t get service . It wasn’t until a day or two later he found out there were two other people in the back seat of Rhein’s car.

 

Steven Erickson

Steven Erickson, forensic pathologist and deputy chief medical examiner at the Arkansas Crime Lab, said Cindy Reign died from multiple traumatic injuries. He said she died before the fire reached her.

Steven Sprankle was examined by another doctor. Erickson said his opinions were close to that of the doctor who examined Steven Sprankle, . He said Steven Sprankle did not have the same sort of blunt force trauma that Cindy Rheins had. Erickson said he would have included flames as a contributing cause of death. In house fires, a victim typically dies before the flames reach them, but the situation is different within the close confines of a car. He said it is impossible to determine how extensive the burns were before his death.

A third doctor performed the autopsy on Anthony Sprankle. His listed causes of death included blunt force trauma, smoke inhalation and it listed a cardiovascular issue as a contributing factor. Erickson said he disagreed with that last point. Anthony Sprankle had 90 percent blockage, which was highly unusual for a man in his early 20s, but he did not believe this made any difference. He said he also would have listed thermal burns as a contributing cause of death. Erickson disagreed with the listing of smoke inhalation as a cause of death. Erickson said Anthony Sprankle inhaled super heated gas which paralyzed his larynx and caused  closure. He said the smoke and soot did not enter his body below the larynx.

Crisp, on cross-examination, presented the autopsy reports into evidence. He noted the doctors found the causes of death to be accidental and asked if Erickson agreed.

“I do,” said Erickson.

On cross, Garrett asked Erickson to explain the ruling of accidental cause of death. Erickson said it is a cause of death classification, referring to public health and has no judicial weight. He said it’s one of four categories to keep track of how people are dying.

Erickson said there are four COD classifications: accident, act of god, natural and homicide.

“There’s multiple overlap, in my opinion,” said Erickson.

Crisp asked, “So you have no judicial training and are not testifying in fact of law?”

“No,” said Erickson.

Greg Church

Corporal Greg Church, with the Arkansas State Police, said he pulled up and saw a Ford F 250 (Ledwell’s vehicle) lying on its side, and he saw a burned up vehicle in the ditch. He said there was a local deputy who appeared very shaken and he saw a gentleman lying behind his patrol car. Church said the gentleman was pulled out of the van (Rhein’s) and there was another gentleman lying in a ditch who’d been pulled out of the truck. He said the vehicle was still smoldering and he found more than one victim still inside. He got the camera and began taking pictures of the scene.

Garrett read jurors excerpts from hospital records. According to these records, Ledwell told doctors he bent over to pick something up when he was driving. The record said Ledwell told doctors he climbed out of the sun roof and thought he might have lost consciousness at some point. He was also suffering from back and abdominal pain.

James Avant

James Avant, with the Arkansas State Police, said he pulled up as Rhein’s van was still on fire. He said there were people everywhere. Speaking with Corporal Church, he determined there were three bodies in the van.

Avant said he found gouge marks in the asphalt indicating the point of impact. He said the downward force of the tire rods or another piece of the vehicle gouged into the asphalt and tore chunks out. He said he also found tire marks indicating where Cindy Rhein applied the breaks.

Garrett read the police report. The report read that after Ledwell traveled off center at impact. After the impact, Ledwell’s vehicle continued traveling North (in the direction it had been traveling) approximately 65 feet. Rhein’s vehicle was knocked backwards about 45 feet. Garrett asked if this was common.

Avant said this occurs in some accidents and not in others. He confirmed Ledwell’s ford also climbed up over Cindy’s vehicle during the crash.

Crisp asked who took the pictures, Avant said Church did. Avant was also not the one who performed the accident reconstruction.

Crisp asked if the vehicles actually collided at an angle (rather than head on). Avant confirmed they had, with the driver’s headlight of both vehicles hitting each other. Avant also said he didn’t speak to Ledwell bout he could tell Ledwell was in a lot of pain. Ledwell was taken by an ambulance. Avant said he couldn’t be sure whether or not the ambulance met a helicopter up the road.

Crisp asked if Avant would agree the area had no cell phone service. Avant said yes and said police have have a different system to get calls and messages out.

Jimmy Thomas III

Jimmy Thomas III, an investigator with the Arkansas State Police, showed jurors photos of the point of impact marks. At that time, he said he didn’t determine which vehicle made the skid marks.

He said they got a partial license plate number from Cindy Rhein’s vehicle, which led to their identification of the vehicle and victims. He said photos zeroing in on certain points of damaged were used to determine angles during accident reconstruction. He said marks are attributed to which part of a vehicle left what mark on another.

An accident recorder in Ledwell’s vehicle recorded the last five seconds before airbag deployment, taking data such as speed and steering wheel position at different intervals.

He said he recorded the UN Number of the vehicle and the numbers on the tires. He said the tires on the Ford were bigger than those that came with the original truck.

Crisp asked if Thomas was aware new tires can be calibrated so that the speedometer records correctly. Thomas said yes. He said the investigator would have to go to the shop where the tires were put on the truck to find out if they were calibrated, but he did not know if the investigator had done so.

Tim Carter

Tim Carter, a sergeant with the Arkansas State Police, said he began reconstruction a few days after the crash. Based on data, he said he believed Cindy Rhein applied the breaks before the crash. He said he examined both vehicles in the salvage yard and it was difficult to match the damage to Rhein’s vehicle to the damage on Ledwell’s because of the fire damage.

He said the recorder on Ledwell’s vehicle noted his speed at 55 miles per hour at the moment of the crash. In the five seconds previous, his speed had gone up from 46 MPH to 55 MPH. He said he made adjustments to these recordings because the tires were taller than standard, which added speed on the speedometer. He said Ledwell’s speed was probably about 59 MPH, but a minimum of 55 MPH. Rhein’s vehicle was traveling 47 MPH.

According to the data collected, said Carter, Ledwell did not slow down at all but went faster. He said Rhein’s recorder was destroyed in the fire.

He said the impact was off center.

“I believe he (Ledwell) realized he was in the wrong lane and tried to get over,” said Carter.

Garrett asked if it was unusual for a vehicle in a crash to completely reverse momentum, as Rhein’s had done. Carter said it’s a matter of physics: a larger vehicle traveling 10 MPH faster than her’s would overwrite the smaller vehicle’s momentum.

Garrett asked if Rhein’s vehicle being knocked back 46 feet spoke to the attention of Ledwell. Carter said he didn’t know about the attention, but it spoke to the size of his vehicle.

“And no doubt he was on the wrong side of the road?” said Garrett.

“Correct,” said Carter.

Crisp asked about reaction time for humans. Carter said the standard is about 1.5 seconds. Crisp asked to discuss the reaction time according to the vehicle recorder and Carter said he didn’t have an indication he (Ledwell) reacted.

Crisp asked if there was a way a human being could know exactly how much pressure they were putting on an accelerator without the aid of a machine. Carter said there was none he knew of.

Crisp showed Carter the readouts on the recorder showing Ledwell’s turning right. Carter said it looked like a steady turn rather than evasive action. Crisp asked if the vehicle sped up in the last second which could indicate an attempt to get onto the right side of the road. Carter said yes. Crisp asked if the last second saw a marked change to get into his lane.

“That’s correct,” said Carter.

“If you lean forward, it makes sense a little more pressure would be applied to the accelerator?” asked Crisp.

“Yes,” said Carter.

“And nothing to suggest that’s not what happened?”

“Not really.”

Crisp asked if Rhein’s vehicle had less evidence, meaning they had to make a few calculations and a few assumptions.

“Correct,” said Carter.

“You didn’t attempt to find the shop where the tires were added to see if they were calibrated?”

“I did not,” said Carter.

Reading Carter’s report, Crisp noted where it read the speed increase was consistent with passing a slower vehicle. Crisp asked if the recorder would have recorded a left turn if that were the case.

“That depends on when it started,” said Carter.

“You don’t know if that’s the cause?” Crisp asked.

“Correct,” said Carter.

David Rider

The state called David Rider last. Rider testified he received a cellphone with a search warrant and meant to check the phone to see if Ledwell had been using it before the crash. But the phone was an Iphone 6, which they do not have the ability to unlock, so this could not be determined.

Crisp said the previous witness testified there was no cell phone service in that area and asked if Rider had looked into that.

“I did not,” said Rider. “I just searched the phone.”

The courtroom was closed during the defense portion of the trial.

Closing arguments

Garrett said the case was difficult because they were not arguing that this was an intentional act, as in most crime cases. In this case, the jury had to decide if Ledwell was guilty of criminal negligence. He said distracted driving is also deadly driving. When you’re driving distracted, the results can be catastrophic, as was the case in 2015.

He said the question was if it was a substantial and unjustifiable risk. He said these are hard questions and the risk must be to a degree that failure to perceive it in the circumstances constitutes a gross dereliction.

He said there are two possible conclusions: that it was negligence or an accident.

Crisp said he looked at the notes and it struck him that people use common sense to judge things and common sense says all human beings make mistakes and have accidents.

He said everyone has had times in which they were distracted and crossed the center line.

“There but for the grace of God.”

He said they all have sympathy for the family, but they were there to determine if there had been criminal conduct. He said there are thousands of serious automobile accidents every week, in Arkansas and the world, that do not result in negligence charges.

He said there’s no judging the aftermath, but humans are wired in such a way that if coffee spills on them, most don’t let that continue to happen rather than react and say, “What happened?”

He said Carter admitted a lot of the reconstruction was based on assumption and he didn’t know where Ledwell was. Crisp said they do know some conduct was occurring and he was not going to fault a person’s decisions in the second before an accident.

“We are not perfect people. It does not make us criminal,” said Crisp.

He said the state did not prove intoxication, nor fatigued driving, nor cellphone use, nor impairment. He said the state did not prove those things because they did not happen.

He questioned why this case was filed a year later, and suggested it might have involved pressure from the media or the public. He said news media and the public get riled up, knowing only that deaths occurred.

“You as the jury are the only ones who know the real facts,” said Crisp.

Deputy prosecutor Steven Shirron also said there have been times when he crossed the center line or the white line. He asked, “What if there’d been a lady getting mail? Did I know the risk? Yes,” he said.

He said we must always be aware that there is an unjustifiable risk. “Yes, we know that there but for the grace of God,” he said.

He said the jury’s job is not to judge if they had been there and not to judge based on whether or not they had been held criminally responsible or anyone else.

He said one defense tactic that always comes through is to put everyone on trial except the defendant. He said Crisp accused the County Prosecutor of political ambitions, but he said Crisp provided no evidence of this. Shirron said the County Prosecutor made her decision because she felt a jury should decide.

“We have human reactions. Those come with consequences. Driving is a privilege,” said Shirron.

After deliberations, the jury came out with a guilty sentence. For all four counts, the jury sentenced Ledwell to one year in county jail. The jury recommended the sentence be suspended and Judge Chris E Williams approved.

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