MINOT, N.D.-A jury found Georgia truck driver Vernon Neil Wright not guilty Wednesday of negligent homicide for a June 2013 fiery crash that killed three men in North Dakota's Oil Patch.
Mountrail County Attorney Wade Enget had argued that Wright acted negligently when his oil tanker blocked the westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 2 east of Stanley on a foggy morning.
The crash and subsequent explosion killed David Maskey, 41, Minot, formerly Rugby; Patrick Wilkie, 26, Minot, formerly Wahpeton; and Tyler Fischer, 22, Rhame, formerly Bowman. All three worked for Triangle Electric and were heading to work in Stanley the morning of the crash.
Defense attorney David Dusek argued in North Central Judicial District Court that the other drivers involved in the five-vehicle crash were driving too fast for the conditions. The driver of a pickup who initially struck Wright and stalled his truck across the highway is responsible for the crash, Dusek argued.
"Vernon Wright didn't get out and try to run. He stayed in the truck to try to restart it, to try to get it to move off the road. He could not get it restarted. He tried. The other vehicles started hitting him. There was nothing he could do," Dusek said.
Several supporters of Wright who have attended the trial cried as the not guilty verdicts were read Wednesday after more than three hours of deliberation. Wright left the courtroom quickly without commenting to media and Dusek said he had no comment.
A few of the victims' family members attended the trial in Minot that began with testimony Monday, including Shavonne Wilkie, Patrick Wilkie's mother, who said she was disappointed and discouraged by the verdict.
"He can go on and live his life but three young men died that day, forever changing the lives of their families, friends and co-workers," said Shavonne Wilkie of Wahpeton.
Jill Harvey, the fiancee of David Maskey, said she attended the trial to gain insight into what happened that day because it was too traumatic for her right after the crash. After hearing the evidence, Harvey said she has no doubt that Wright was at fault.
"Vernon Wright pulled out into oncoming traffic. He had no regard to other people's safety and he should have not been on the road that morning," Harvey said.
Wright was eastbound on Highway 2 delivering a load of crude oil to a transload facility near Stanley when conditions became foggy and he attempted to turn north to get his truck off the highway, Dusek told jurors.
Both Wilkie and Harvey said they hope the crash prompts better regulations to prevent accidents, such as not allowing vehicles carrying hazardous materials on the roads when driving conditions are poor.
"David came home every day saying, 'It was another near-miss with a semi,'" Harvey said.
Enget declined to comment after the verdict.