Rock Hill mother wants charges after fatal crash

2012-04-27T00:00:00Z 2013-02-18T08:43:24Z Rock Hill mother wants charges after fatal crashBY JOEL CURRIER • jcurrier@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8256 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • He straddled his blue Yamaha motorcycle, the first in a line of traffic waiting for the red light to change.

As Aaron Becker waited at the signal, an out-of-control motor home was barreling downhill behind him, unable to stop. It clipped two cars before knocking Becker to the pavement, dragging him underneath and finally grinding to a stop. Becker, 22, was wearing a helmet, but it couldn't help him. He suffocated, his chest squeezed so tight in the wreckage that he couldn't breathe.

Authorities say Robert Weiter, who was driving the motor home, caused the Sept. 27 crash. His insurance company paid an undisclosed settlement to Becker's family.

But Weiter hasn't been charged, or even ticketed, in the fatal crash.

Becker's mother, Anne Perkins, says the St. Louis County prosecutor's decision earlier this year not to charge the RV's driver with a crime is incomprehensible.

"He killed my son, and I want him to pay the price for his actions," said Perkins, 56, of Rock Hill. "I feel like the whole legal system has failed us and failed my son."

But prosecutors say Becker's case illustrates the challenge of deciding whether drivers who make simple — yet deadly — mistakes behind the wheel should face criminal charges.

"There was a terrible, tragic death, but it's not necessarily a crime," St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch said. "Sometimes accidents are accidents."

That answer doesn't satisfy Perkins.

Seven months after Becker's death, Perkins is asking the Missouri Highway Patrol to reopen the investigation into the crash. A better investigation might mean charges, she hopes.

Weiter, a pastor and owner of a Christian Internet radio network that also provides Web services, declined to be interviewed for this story on advice from his lawyer.

ACCIDENT OR CRIME?

Becker, a Lafayette High School graduate and mechanic at a Kirkwood auto shop, was at Highway 141 and Gravois Bluffs Road when he and two others were rear-ended by the 1976 Dodge Diplomat driven by Weiter, 49, of unincorporated St. Louis County. Weiter told authorities he was driving the newly purchased RV to get it inspected when he crashed into the line of cars at the light.

Weiter told Trooper Adam Michels that he thought the brakes failed as he rolled downhill toward the intersection, the crash report says.

"I applied the brake to the floor," Weiter told Michels, according to the report. "I was out of my seat on the brake. The brakes didn't respond like I think they should have."

A Highway Patrol mechanic who checked the RV's brakes found no problems but couldn't determine whether they had been functioning at the time of the crash.

The patrol did not write Weiter a ticket, instead turning the case over to prosecutors, said Sgt. Al Nothum of the patrol.

"We totally understand how she feels," Nothum said of Perkins. "She lost a son at no fault to him. But the investigation was very thorough, and we stand by it."

In February, St. Louis County prosecutors refused criminal charges against Weiter. McCulloch said even though Weiter caused the crash, there was not enough evidence to prove he drove recklessly by ignoring major, obvious risks — the legal standard the prosecutor would have to meet in court. McCulloch said the investigation did not explain why Weiter failed to stop in time.

"The natural assumption of just about everybody is that if there's a death, there should be a crime," McCulloch said. "And that just isn't the case."

Weiter would have had to be intoxicated, speeding or ignoring traffic in front of him in order to meet the legal definition of "criminally negligent" and face an involuntary manslaughter charge, McCulloch said.

Some cases are clearer. As an example, McCulloch cited a deadly highway pileup on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) in July 2008, when an Alabama trucker hit several vehicles as he reached for his cellphone. Three people were killed and 15 more were injured. The trucker was charged and pleaded guilty on three counts of involuntary manslaughter. He spent a year in jail.

"In that case, even without evidence that he might have been using the phone, he made no attempt to stop," McCulloch said.

Cases like Becker's, however, aren't unheard of. St. Charles County Prosecutor Jack Banas recalled a 2009 crash in which a car struck two nuns crossing a dark street in O'Fallon, Mo., after they returned from a group outing at a Cardinals game. One of the nuns died of her injuries, but Banas didn't charge the driver — even though she wasn't paying attention — because the woman wasn't speeding, drinking or violating traffic laws.

"It's a tough call for prosecutors," Banas said. "Sometimes that is a very difficult question."

INVESTIGATION QUESTIONED

Perkins believes the patrol's investigation into her son's death was 'shoddy" and missed possible factors in the crash, such as witness accounts of Weiter's possible physical limitations.

Four witnesses interviewed by the Post-Dispatch said they saw Weiter using crutches to walk immediately after the crash. One was Brittany Harrington, 23, of Fenton, who was stopped behind Becker when the RV sideswiped her Ford Ranger.

"As soon as he got out of the Winnebago, I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Harrington said. "He was on crutches."

After a caller told the Highway Patrol she had heard that Weiter sought to have the RV modified to accommodate "his disability," the report says, an investigator interviewed the owner and a salesman at the RV dealership. They said Weiter had asked the dealership to modify the seat so he could safely get in and out of the RV, the report says. The dealership declined to do so. Weiter bought the RV anyway.

The RV dealer and salesman also told a reporter that Weiter used crutches but said he took the RV for a test drive without any problems. Weiter showed the salesman his valid Missouri drivers license. He has a clean driving record, according to the state Department of Revenue.

The crash report does not mention Weiter needing crutches to walk. The patrol concluded that there was no evidence any physical limitations contributed to the wreck.

The patrol's report concludes Weiter was traveling "too fast for conditions" but does not specify Weiter's speed. It also cited improper lane changes by the RV as a factor. Witnesses reported seeing the RV moving fast, swerving and switching lanes before the crash. A breath test taken at the scene showed Weiter had no alcohol in his system.

Perkins also believes that the patrol failed to interview all the witnesses who saw the crash. She visited a mechanic recently as she seeks to fix up a car her son was working on when he died, and says she met a man who had witnessed the crash.

Ted Manley told a reporter the same thing: He saw the crash and was trying to help Becker when authorities arrived and ordered him away from the scene. He and Perkins believe at least one other witness wasn't interviewed.

Investigators say they are now trying to reach Manley.

FINISHING WHAT SON STARTED

Perkins recently visited the site of the crash for the first time.

"I just needed a mental picture of the place my son died," she said.

Becker left behind a 1-year-old son, Vinny, who lives with his mother. She could not be reached for this story.

Perkins says the boy's demeanor reminds Perkins of his father. His laugh. His smile.

"I see a lot of Aaron in him," she said. "That is indeed my son's son."

For the last couple of years, Becker spent his spare time restoring a rundown 1988 Ford Mustang he was hoping to turn into a race car. And though the car is still thousands of dollars away from being street legal, Perkins says she is determined to get it running again.

Becker's Mustang sits in a Rock Hill auto shop waiting for attention. Perkins doesn't know whether she'll end up driving it, selling or donating it, but she is determined to finish her son's project. She knows that's what he would have wanted.

"I'm not ready to let go of it yet," she said.

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