BALLSTON SPA Five weeks after a horrific Northway crash that killed two high school students and grievously injured two more, the man who allegedly caused the wreck was brought into court Monday in jail garb and shackles.
Dennis Drue answered the basic questions posed to him by Judge Jerry Scarano and then waived a formal reading of a 59-count indictment charging him with felony aggravated vehicular homicide.
Behind him in the courtroom gallery were the parents of Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers, the two 17-year-old Shenendehowa High School seniors who died in the Dec. 1 crash. Some of them wearing Shen apparel and others wearing pins bearing the image of Rivers, they watched as Drue denied the charges accusing him of having enough alcohol and marijuana in his system to cause the accident that sent shock waves of grief through the suburban school district.
In all, Drue was charged with 52 felonies, the worst of which could land him up to 25 years in state prison. He was also charged with several misdemeanors and violations, including one that accuses him of having a bag containing a small amount of marijuana and the remnants of a smoked marijuana cigarette.
An indictment in the case was handed up Friday and Drue was arrested that evening. The 22-year-old Halfmoon resident spent the weekend in Saratoga County Jail before the indictment was unsealed in court Monday afternoon.
The top count takes into consideration the combined impact marijuana and alcohol had on Drue and doesn’t require prosecutors to nail down the degree to which he was impaired. Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy III said the statute merely requires him to show Drue’s ability to drive was influenced by either marijuana or alcohol or a combination of both, leading him to cause the accident.
“Mr. Drue allegedly had a quantity of alcohol in his blood at the time he allegedly crashed into the back of the four students,” he told reporters after the arraignment. “Also, he had a quantity of marijuana that was actively affecting his brain and was actively affecting his ability to operate that motor vehicle.”
Eyewitness accounts given to police indicated that Drue was speeding in a 2004 Volvo in the far left northbound lane of the highway when he abruptly moved across the middle lane and into the far right lane. The Volvo then clipped the rear of a 2000 Ford Explorer being driven by Stewart in that lane, causing it to flip several times before coming to rest on the side of the highway.
Stewart, who was a captain of the Shenendehowa football team, was killed in the crash. Rivers, a 17-year-old Shen softball player who was a passenger in the back seat, was flung from the wreck and also died. Stewart’s girlfriend of more than a year — 17-year-old Shaker High School senior Bailey Wind — suffered a serious neck injury in the crash. Matt Hardy, 17, Stewart’s teammate and Rivers’ boyfriend, was partially thrown from the vehicle and sustained several broken bones.
The foursome was returning home after watching Siena College’s basketball team play the University at Albany at the Times Union Center. They were en route to Rivers’ home in Halfmoon when the crash occurred, just a short distance away from Exit 8.
Drue escaped any serious injury in the wreck.
His lengthy history of traffic infractions, license suspensions and motor vehicle accidents came to light as Assistant District Attorney James Davis discussed his bail during the proceedings. The county prosecutor’s office later supplied an abstract showing Drue had amassed more than a dozen speeding tickets, five license suspensions, one revocation and was faulted in at least four traffic accidents before last month’s fatal wreck.
Davis also alluded to Drue’s spotty history of showing up for traffic court and a report suggesting his former home in Colonie was once the target of a marijuana raid by police. He mentioned Drue’s insistence that state police retrieve a pair of safety deposit box keys from his crashed Volvo and their discovery of a bank statement in his name, indicating the unemployed Siena student had tens of thousands of dollars.
But perhaps the most shocking revelation offered by Davis was the assertions Drue allegedly made to state police after they executed the arrest warrant Friday. He said an unapologetic Drue scoffed at the charges to the troopers, claiming the case against him was a baseless one driven by an outraged community.
“When he was picked up on this warrant … he stated the charges are bogus, they were trumped up, that the purpose of all this was to parade him in front of the cameras,” Davis told the judge.
These comments solicited a firm objection from Stephen Coffey, Drue’s defense attorney, who blasted the assistant prosecutor for introducing prejudicial and baseless information during their bail discussion. He said the district attorney’s office had previously agreed to a bail of $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond, meaning the information Davis relayed in open court wasn’t necessary — the prosecution was not trying to sway the judge toward a higher bail figure.
“He does not apologize for the idea that he’s not guilty,” Coffey told the judge.
About a dozen family members, including the parents of Hardy and Wind, remained in the courtroom after Drue was led out in shackles. Some embraced; one choked up and wept softly.
Afterward, Coffey was equally adamant about his client’s innocence, claiming Drue had “some drinks” on the eve of the accident, but was not on drugs or intoxicated. He also took issue with any notion that Drue wasn’t fazed by the charges against him.
“The statement that was made today that he’s not taking this seriously is ludicrous,” he told a gathering of reporters outside the courtroom. “What person in his right mind could walk in front of a judge, and in this community where two people are dead, two people are seriously injured, have a 59-count indictment and not think he’s taking it seriously?”
Fair trial concerns
Coffey also questioned whether Drue could get a fair trial in Saratoga County, given the publicity around the case. He said the overall public perception continues to be that Drue is guilty.
“A couple hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have needed a trial,” he said. “We’d get a tree and a rope and that’s all we’d need.”
Drue posted bond and was released from jail shortly after the proceeding. He also surrendered a shotgun from his Halfmoon home to prosecutors.
Murphy and State Police Capt. Steven James declined to discuss the details of the case, including Drue’s blood alcohol content or when he was suspected of smoking marijuana. They also wouldn’t say how fast he was traveling when the crash occurred, except that it was over the speed limit.
Aside from the 20 counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, Drue also faces charges of manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault, criminally using drug paraphernalia, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs or alcohol, driving while intoxicated, driving while ability impaired by drugs, reckless driving and unlawful possession of marijuana. Murphy said the crucial element of the top count is that he only has to show Drue’s reckless driving and impairment caused the accident, rather than demonstrate he was over the legal limit to drive.
“That statute does not require a quantitative measure,” he said. “All it requires is impairment to any extent, recklessness, death and either drugs or alcohol or both to any extent.”