Note: This story was last updated at 6 p.m.
CLINTON—On the witness stand on Tuesday, a mechanic and victim again disputed a claim that a stuck throttle might have been the cause of a parking lot crash that killed a Knoxville man and injured other people, including children, after fireworks in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015.
The two witnesses—victim Michael Eldridge and mechanic David Carey of Secret City Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram—were among 15 witnesses who testified from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon in the homicide trial of Lee Harold Cromwell, 68, in Anderson County Circuit and Criminal Court in Clinton.
The witnesses included victims, police officers, and the wife of the man who died as well as the couple’s two young children.
Presentation of the evidence concluded Tuesday afternoon, and closing arguments were given Wednesday morning. The case went to the 12-person jury late Wednesday morning.
Cromwell is accused of killing James Robinson, 37, of Knoxville; injuring others; and crashing into several vehicles as he backed his Dodge Ram pickup truck through the crowded parking lot at Midtown Community Center in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015, after fireworks across the street at Alvin K. Bissell Park. He is facing a vehicular homicide charge and eight counts of aggravated assault.
Here are some highlights of the testimony on Monday and Tuesday.
Two witnesses—Eldridge and Oak Ridge Police Department Officer Ben Higgins—said Cromwell told them after the crash that his throttle had stuck. But a skeptical Eldridge, who was hit on the left knee, said he heard Cromwell revving the motor up and down.
“When I heard him revving his motor…that just told me it didn’t stick,” Eldridge told defense attorney James Scott during cross examination on Tuesday morning.
Eldridge, who has offered what might be the most complete recounting of the crash as it occurred, said Cromwell’s red pickup truck had been at the very end of the Midtown Community Center, facing east, toward Oak Ridge High School, and it had blocked people from exiting the parking lot.
After fireworks, the truck started backing slowly but sideswiped a Ford Thunderbird that was parked sideways in the parking lot, Eldridge said. The truck stopped, he said. But then, after a few seconds, it started slowly backing again.
Cromwell hit a second vehicle parked sideways, a van, Eldridge said. Once again, the truck stopped for a few seconds.
“Then, he floored it,” Eldridge said.
“I told my wife, ‘This guy’s going to run,’” said Eldridge, who had been sitting on the tailgate of his silver Ford pickup with his wife Elizabeth during the fireworks show. “Then I said, ‘He’s going to hit us.’”
At that point, Cromwell’s truck was about 40 to 60 feet away, but it was moving quickly, Eldridge said.
He said the rear of Cromwell’s pickup hit his left knee, and he flew through the air, hitting the back of his cab.
“My leg was pouring blood; I’m on blood thinners,” Eldridge said. “It was like a horror movie.”
After the crash, Cromwell remained in his truck, talking on his cell phone, Eldridge said. Eldridge said he heard Cromwell’s motor rev up and down.
Eldridge said he threw his hands in the air in a questioning manner: “Why did you do this?” he recalled of his exchange with Cromwell.
“He got off his phone, stuck his head out the window, and said, ‘My accelerator stuck,’” Eldridge said.
“And you’re going to stick with that story?” an exasperated Eldridge responded.
He said he saw Robinson under Cromwell’s truck with blood coming out of his mouth.
Eldridge’s testimony during the criminal trial was similar to his testimony during a preliminary hearing in Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge on January 15, 2016.
Michael’s wife Elizabeth also testified Tuesday in Criminal Court. She said she saw Cromwell’s truck after it hit the Thunderbird, which was parked sideways in a narrowed stretch between the upper and lower parking lots at the Midtown Community Center.
“The truck started backing again,” Elizabeth Eldridge said. “I saw it hit the van.” The van was in that connector as well, parked behind the Thunderbird.
Again the truck stopped, Eldridge said, again for a few seconds.
“Then it started reversing at a fast rate,” she said. “It came right toward our truck.”
When it hit, the impact also flipped her backward in the bed of their truck.
She said she was concerned for her husband.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, his legs are going to be gone,'” Elizabeth Eldridge recalled.
Higgins was the first and only witness on Monday afternoon. He said there was a massive crowd at the Midtown Community Center when he arrived after fireworks a year-and-a-half ago. The crowded parking lot was chaotic—”everyone screaming, everyone yelling,” Higgins said.
Robinson was partially underneath and behind Cromwell’s pickup truck, which was facing east, toward Oak Ridge High School. Robinson appeared to be unconscious and lying in a pool of his own blood, Higgins said.
Quite a few people in the parking lot were upset with Cromwell, and Higgins was asked to stay with Cromwell for Cromwell’s own safety.
“He seemed pretty calm considering what just happened,” Higgins said.
Authorities have ruled out drugs and alcohol. Higgins said he asked Cromwell for his license, registration, and insurance. Cromwell gave him an expired identification card from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Asked what had happened, Cromwell said he was slowly backing up and then his throttle stuck, Higgins said.
Carey, an expert witness for the prosecution, said he found no evidence that the throttle had been stuck open or had any mechanical defect.
“It was in perfectly good condition,” Carey said. He examined the vehicle twice, the first time on July 13, 2015, and again on July 21, 2015.
The throttle system parts that he inspected moved freely, Carey said.
No throttle recalls had been issued for that vehicle model, a 2006 Dodge Ram pickup truck, according to testimony. And he had not seen any problems with the 2006 Dodge Ram pickup truck, Carey said.
Carey also testified during the preliminary hearing in January 2016.
Julia Robinson, James Robinson’s wife, recalled her last words to James as he lay on his side, possibly unconscious, in the parking lot underneath a vehicle.
“I told him that the girls were safe, and I loved him,” Robinson said.
She went back and forth between her girls, Jaide, now 11, and Jackie, now 9, and her husband.
Emergency medical workers were there in seconds, but “it felt like a lifetime,” Robinson said.
She said the crash bounced her off a car that had been next to her family’s GMC Envoy sport utility vehicle. She had a severe concussion, nerve damage, a cut on her forehead, and bleeding and swelling of her face.
The family had been packing up, getting ready to leave the Midtown Community Center at the time of the crash.
After the crash, Julia Robinson and her two girls, Jaide and Jackie, were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.
Jackie Robinson, who had been in the back of the family’s GMC Envoy with her father at the time of the crash, said they were picking up after fireworks when the vehicle came.
“I just remember getting trapped in,” said Jackie, who came onto the witness stand carrying a large brown stuffed animal. “He (James, her father) was pushing me in so I wouldn’t get hurt.”
Jaide Robinson said her dad had come running toward her as well.
“I didn’t really feel the push,” she said. “I closed my eyes.”
Like a few other victims, she said she was “ping-ponged” against cars.
Christopher Lochmuller of the Knox County Regional Forensic Center, which performed the autopsy on Robinson after the crash, said Robinson had two severe injuries that can each be fatal: a torn aorta in the upper portion of the left side of his chest—the worst of the two injuries—and a compression injury in his upper spinal cord.
“It is very serious without rapid medical intervention,” Lochmuller said, referring to the torn aorta.
The injuries were more severe than those that might be caused by someone being bumped by a vehicle, Lochmuller said.
“It’s not someone just slowly backing out of a parking space,” he said.
Robinson had two impact areas, one on his right inside knee and the other on his left outside knee. That indicated a vehicle had hit him there, Lochmuller said. It might have been a bumper.
Former Oak Ridge Police Department Officer Scott Carroll, the first officer at the crash, said the parking lot was “chaotic” when he arrived. The crash is among the worst anyone can remember in Oak Ridge.
“It was hundreds of people running around screaming,” Carroll said.
Robinson was unconscious, still under Cromwell’s truck. His head was swollen and his breathing was shallow, Carroll said.
Carroll turned Robinson’s head to the side, hoping to let fluids drain from his lungs.
“At that point, I just held him,” Carroll said.
Robinson was probably taken away by ambulance within 10 minutes, but it’s hard to be certain because of the chaos, Carroll said.
In closing arguments Wednesday morning, Tony Craighead, Anderson County deputy district attorney general, said Cromwell was attempting to flee, and he behaved recklessly by backing through a crowded parking lot at high speed. Five people testified under oath that Cromwell stopped after he hit a vehicle, looked around, then “floored it,” Craighead said. Testimony showed there was nothing wrong with the truck, Craighead said.
The defense, including in testimony on Tuesday, said Cromwell was not impaired, and the crash was an unintended acceleration, possibly due to a mix-up between the gas and brake pedal.
“I’ve seen no other evidence,” said James Norris, an expert witness called in by the defense to testify on Tuesday. “This accident was an unintended acceleration.”
He said unintended accelerations can be the result of mechanical malfunctions or human error.
The testimony by Norris, particularly the claim of a pedal mix-up, triggered a fierce line of questioning by Craighead, who said he was “taken aback” by Norris “coming in here and trying to mislead the jury,” including with discussion of Toyota recalls, which “has nothing to do with this case,” Craighead said.
Had Norris considered the possibility that Cromwell was trying to flee? Craighead asked.
“I considered it, but he ultimately didn’t flee the scene,” Norris said
In response, Craighead said Cromwell was stopped by the cars and the person that he hit.
The defense raised questions about whether the Dodge truck should have been inspected by a Chrysler dealer.
“The fox was guarding the henhouse,” said Scott, the defense attorney.
The defense did not argue that the throttle had stuck.
Responding to Craighead’s closing argument, Scott said Cromwell “didn’t try to run.”
“It was a quick incident that could have happened to any driver,” Scott said.
Cromwell, who has pleaded not guilty, did not testify.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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