CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A prosecutor said Tuesday that a commercial truck driver charged in the deaths in 2019 of seven members of a Marine motorcycle club told police he caused the crash and wasn't looking, while the driver's lawyer said it was the fault of the lead biker, who looked over his shoulder at his fellow riders moments before the collision.
The truck driver, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, who had taken heroin, fentanyl and cocaine on June 21, 2019, “weaved back and forth repeatedly” before the head-on crash, prosecutor John McCormick said in his opening statement in Zhukovskyy's trial in state superior court in Lancaster.
He said multiple witnesses would testify that Zhukovskyy, who said he was reaching down to get a drink before the crash, was seen going over the center line on U.S. Route 2 in Randolph, New Hampshire.
McCormick said Zhukovskyy knew how dangerous heroin was because on May 5 that year, he had overdosed on the drug while on a fishing trip with his family and was revived by police, who administered an overdose reversal drug.
“This wasn’t just an accident,” McCormick said. “This was criminal recklessness and criminal negligence.”
Zhukovskyy's lawyer, Steve Mirkin, said his client had taken the drugs on June 21, but he said there is no evidence that he was impaired at the time of the crash and that police did not make any observations in the hours afterward suggesting that he was impaired.
He said the president of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club, Albert “Woody” Mazza, who led the pack of riders, lost control of his motorcycle, came into contact with Zhukovskyy's truck first, and caused the crash. Mirkin said Mazza had been drinking and his blood-alcohol level was close to twice the legal limit of .08 in New Hampshire.
“Drunk drivers kill,” Mirkin said. “Al Mazza was drunk. Vlad Zhukovskyy is not guilty of any of these charges.”
He asked the jury to listen to witness accounts of what they saw, and said a lot of the testimony would be inconsistent.
The first witnesses who testified were drivers who approached the crash scene from both directions. They described seeing dead bodies, including one under a wheel of a flatbed trailer towed by the truck, as well as debris from the motorcycles and the truck on fire.
“You see these images on movies like ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” said Annie Barron, a nurse who was a passenger in a car behind the truck and got out to see if she could help anyone. “That's what you saw — like limbs scattered around.”
She said she stayed with a badly injured man and helped perform CPR when he stopped breathing, but was unable to revive him.
Her husband, Stephen Piwowarski, testified he saw the truck go over the line at times, once shortly before the collision. He said he had slowed down at one point because he did not feel the trucker was driving safely.
The vehicles then approached a hill. Piwowarski said he wasn't able to see the moment of impact.
“The thing that was immediately visible to me was a number of motorcyclists who were trying to dump their bikes and get out of the way,” he said, meaning to lay the motorcycles down. “I think it was a case of not feeling like there was anywhere to go."
On cross-examination, Piwowarski testified that a state trooper's account that Piwowarski had seen the entire crash was a misstatement.
Jurors visited the crash scene Monday and traced Zhukovskyy's route from an auto dealership in Gorham to the crash site, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.
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 the highway and were headed to an American Legion Post in Gorham for a fundraiser.
They were traveling east when they collided with the westbound truck, which was towing an empty trailer.
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.
Several bikers were also injured.
Zhukovskyy, of West Springfield, Massachusetts, has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of negligent homicide, manslaughter, driving under the influence and reckless conduct. He has been in jail since 2019.
Zhukovskyy himself told police he had used both heroin and cocaine the morning of the accident, but that he was “fine and OK to drive” later that evening, authorities said.
His lawyers have argued an independent analysis showed Mazza was drunk and was the one who hit the truck and caused the crash. Federal investigators found that some of the bikers and passengers were impaired by alcohol, but that it wasn’t the reason for the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board approved a report in December 2020 that concluded that Zhukovskyy’s impairment from the drugs was the “probable cause” for him crossing the center line on the highway and sparking the fiery crash.
Prosecutors said Zhukovskyy should never have been on the road in the first place. His commercial driving license should have been revoked in Massachusetts because of a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut about two months earlier, they said.
This story has been corrected to show defense lawyer Steve Mirkin said Albert Mazza's blood-alcohol level was close to twice the legal limit, not more than the legal limit.