By Alan Keays, VTDigger
KILLINGTON—A Killington man who faced a manslaughter charge after his escaped bull caused a fatal crash on Route 4 has reached a plea deal that will allow him to avoid jail.
Craig Mosher, 63, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Rutland Superior Court to a reduced misdemeanor offense of reckless endangerment in the death of Jon Bellis, 62, of Woodbridge, Conn.
Jerry O’Neill, a Burlington attorney representing Kathryn Barry Bellis, said after the hearing that his client had wanted the case to proceed to trial on the involuntary manslaughter charge. However, he added, she understood the “practical realities” and thanked the prosecutor for moving forward with a criminal charge. O’Neill said a lawsuit against Mosher in connection with the crash had been settled for an undisclosed amount.
Mosher, the owner of an excavation company, was sentenced as part of the plea agreement to six to 12 months in jail, all suspended. He was placed on probation for two years, fined $500 and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.
“Hopefully,” Judge Cortland Corsones said in sentencing Mosher, “the publicity that this case has garnered will result in others taking the necessary steps to prevent the next tragedy from occurring.”
The judge, from the bench, also spoke directly to Bellis’ widow, Kathryn Barry Bellis, who was seated behind the prosecutors. “Let me apologize on behalf of all Vermonters over what some misguided persons may have stated on social media,” the judge told her. “That does not in any way reflect the feelings of Vermonters over the tragedy that you have suffered. We are all extremely sorry for your loss.”
The case set off heated debate, online and in the letters to the editor sections of newspapers across Vermont and beyond, over the duty of care and responsibilities of animal owners, and the possible criminal consequences.
“The fact of the matter is there’s never been a criminal charge brought against an animal owner for an accident like this,” Ray Duquette Sr., president of the Rutland County Farm Bureau, said outside the courtroom after the hearing. “This is a first, and it has national implications.”
At Mosher’s arraignment on the involuntary manslaughter charge more than a year ago, his supporters and outraged farmers packed the courtroom, referring to the incident leading to the charge as a matter best left to the civil courts.
The proceeding Wednesday was a much more toned down affair, with the courtroom only about half full.
Mosher spoke briefly in court. “My deepest condolences and prayers go out to the Bellis family for this tragic accident,” he said in a soft voice. “It’s broken my heart, and I live it every day.”
Jon Bellis died when the vehicle he was driving west on Route 4 on the night of July 31, 2015, struck Mosher’s bull in the roadway. The vehicle careened down a hill and into a tree. Kathryn Barry Bellis, a passenger, injured her wrist in the crash. The bull, a 1,800-pound Scottish Highlander, was killed.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said after the hearing Wednesday that most people are responsible in caring for and protecting the public from their animals. However, she talked of the “multiple” times that Mosher had been made aware that his bulls were getting loose from his property that abuts Route 4 in Killington. In a case involving such a pattern of behavior, Kennedy said, a criminal charge is warranted.
About 30 minutes before the fatal crash, the driver of a milk truck pulled into Mosher’s driveway, knocked on the door and blared the truck’s horn to let him know about the loose bull. Afterward, when the driver got cell service, he called police. Mosher later told police he tried to find the bull on the night of the fatal crash but couldn’t.
A grand jury indicted Mosher on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“I wanted Mr. Mosher to be a convicted criminal for his actions and to take responsibility for his criminal behavior,” the prosecutor said Wednesday outside court. “Hopefully, from here, Mr. Mosher will help educate the public on the importance of securing their animals.”
Paul Volk, Mosher’s attorney, told the judge his client cares deeply about his community. That included, Volk said, providing a great deal of assistance to the town at no cost in helping to rebuild washed-out roads after Tropical Storm Irene. “Mr. Mosher was literally feted as a hero, post-Irene,” the defense attorney said.
Volk said his client did have defenses to the felony involuntary manslaughter charge. He said a data recorder showed the Bellis vehicle was going 60 to 64 mph at the time of the crash and the brakes had not been applied before hitting the bull. The speed limit at the crash site is 50 mph.
Volk said in accepting the plea agreement his client wanted to spare the Bellis family, as well as his own, the “emotional trauma and anguish” of a trial.
“In my 31 years of practice, this is an extremely novel criminal fact pattern,” the defense attorney added. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
O’Neill discounted the speed of the vehicle at the time of the crash as well as the lack of braking.
“There wasn’t any braking because there was no time to brake,” he said. “He comes across this animal in the road, there was nothing he could do. It’s right there in front of him.”