Trial begins for man suspected in fatal I-70 collision

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:46 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 11, 2009

COLUMBIA – The trial of a Holts Summit man charged in connection with a fatal car collision on Interstate 70 began Tuesday in Boone County Circuit Court with the testimony of three witnesses.

William C. Downs, 34, is charged with first-degree involuntary manslaughter in the February 2008 death of MU agricultural engineering professor Charles D. Fulhage, 61, of Rocheport. Downs is also charged with possession of diazepam, commonly known as Valium.

Judge Kevin Crane swore in the 14-member Lafayette County jury shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday. The 10 women and four menwere present for the opening statement delivered by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Brent Nelson.

Family and friends of Charles Fulhage accounted for the majority of the courtroom audience. A few stared at the courtroom floor or hid their faces behind their hands as Nelson recounted the events surrounding Fulhage’s death.

Nelson said Fulhage was driving west on I-70 when his Ford Ranger was struck from behind by Downs’ Dodge truck. Fulhage’s truck veered off the interstate and rolled down an embankment. He died several days later at University Hospital from injuries sustained in the crash.

In the prosecution’s opening statement, Nelson told the jury they would hear testimony from several police officers, drug-testing experts and  “ordinary citizens” driving on I-70 at the time of the crash. The prosecution is calling these witnesses to connect Downs — and his suspected drug use at the time of the accident — with Fulhage's death.

Nelson said Fulhage’s widow, Jane Fulhage, will recount her final conversation with her husband shortly before the crash. Fulhage's son, Eric Fulhage, is also expected to testify.

The defense, led by public defender Manuel Tatayon, did not give an opening statement.

The state's first witness, William J. Allen, said he spotted Downs driving "erratically" on I- 70, swerving between lanes and running cars onto the shoulder. Allen, a Missouri Department of Transportation employee, followed the silver truck belonging to Downs twenty miles beyond his intended exit, to the Stadium Boulevard exit in Columbia.

When Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Morrell showed Allen photos of the Downs' truck, he identified the vehicle as “identical” to the truck that he followed on I-70.

The second witness, Samantha J. Lewis of Columbia, identified Downs as the driver who struck her car on I-70 and kept driving. After regaining control of her car, Lewis called the police and continued to follow Downs. Lewis said she saw Downs swerve into the right lane and hit the back of the white truck driven by Fulhage. The truck then veered off the highway and down an embankment.

“I stopped, jumped out of my car and ran down the hill,” Lewis said.

After seeing Fulhage unconscious, Lewis confronted Downs, who had pulled over onto the 1-70 westbound shoulder.

“Did you make contact with” Downs? Morrell asked.

“Yes, I told him that he hit my car and kept going. I told him, 'There is a man in critical condition,'” Lewis said.

Lewis said that Downs denied hitting her car, and she told him to wait for the police.  Officers arrived soon after.

Tatayon questioned her recognition of the truck by asking her about any defining features. She said the truck was missing license plates.

Trooper Brad Germann of the Missouri State Highway Patrol administered several tests to check Downs for head injuries and intoxication at the crash scene. Germann said the field sobriety tests showed involuntary jerking of the eyes, which, he added, is usually a sign of intoxication. A Breathalyzer test indicated no presence of alcohol. Germann said Downs admitted to taking both energy drinks and energy pills. Germann intended to take Downs to the Boone County jail for further drug tests but instead went to University Hospital when Downs began to complain of back pain. Downs was later administered a drug test at the hospital. 

After nearly three hours of testimony, the judge recessed the court and sequestered the jury. The trial is expected to continue at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday in Boone County Circuit Court.

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