Opening remarks detail moments before fatal crash
MAYVILLE — Was it reckless driving heightened by drug impairment or was it a series of seemingly escalating events that ended in a tragic accident?
The actions of Heather Capell that culminated the morning of July 1, 2021, in a head-on crash that killed a Cattaraugus County man are at the heart of a trial that kicked off Monday morning in Chautauqua County Court.
According to the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office, Capell was impaired when — driving for miles in the wrong direction in her 2009 Subaru Forester — she struck another vehicle on Interstate 86 shortly after 5 a.m. The head-on crash killed Bradley Wakefield, 52, who was driving to work that morning.
“The evidence will show that the defendant’s reckless conduct and impairment caused the death of Mr. Wakefield,” Erik Bentley, an assistant district attorney, told jurors Monday during opening statements.
Capell, 33, of Brunswick, Georgia, is standing trial on charges of second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter and driving while ability impaired by a combination of drugs/alcohol. The trial is being heard in front of County Court Judge David Foley.
Ned Barone, Chautauqua County public defender and Capell’s attorney, called the crash a “terrible accident” involving someone not from the area who became lost while it was still dark.
“They’re trying to paint her with a wide brush, trying to say she was impaired which caused her to go down (Interstate) 86 the wrong way and that she acted recklessly. In reality, they really don’t know that,” Barone said.
He added, in comments following the opening of the trial, “It had been raining and it was foggy in patches. All of those contributing factors could have caused the tragic accident. And that’s what it was, a tragic accident.”
VISITING A FRIEND
Thirty-six hours prior to the collision on I-86 in the town of North Harmony, Capell left her home in Georgia in the early afternoon and traveled north.
The plan was to pick up a friend in Buffalo and bring her back to Georgia, with a stop along the way to visit her grandfather.
According to Bentley in his opening remarks, Capell took a dose of Adderall before meeting her friend on June 30, 2021. That evening, he said, Capell smoked marijuana and, while tired and hoping to relax at a hotel, instead ended up at a Buffalo strip club where her friend worked.
Capell reportedly waited several hours at the club for her friend’s shift to end.
“Her time there was not idle,” Bentley told jurors. “The defendant said she didn’t drink alcohol, but somebody did offer her something. The defendant took methamphetamine at the club. How do we know that? We know that because she told us.”
Capell later told investigators she felt jittery at the club and that her heart was beating fast. The Georgia woman decided to leave her friend and make the 18-hour trip back home.
“She was tired,” Bentley said. “She wasn’t waiting anymore. She didn’t have a plan. The defendant didn’t have directions.”
RECKLESS DRIVING OR SIMPLY LOST?
Barone said his client, after leaving her friend’s work in Buffalo, became lost. “She has a 10-year-old daughter back home who was with her father,” he said of Capell. “She comes up to pick up her friend. The whole trip is to pick up her friend.”
The DA’s office asserts that after leaving the Buffalo area, Capell traveled south on Route 20 in Chautauqua County. Confused by her surroundings near the town of Ripley, she called her boyfriend and then grandfather.
Yet still confused, Capell then called 911.
“She didn’t ask for the nearest hotel or for a police officer to come help her, she asked for directions,” Bentley said.
Twice, he told jurors, the 911 operator advised Capell to continue on the road she was on where she would eventually meet with Interstate 86.
“The defendant got to 86,” Bentley said. “She was supposed to make a right on to 86 west, and instead she turned left going the wrong way.”
On Monday, prosecutors had four witnesses who called 911 that morning take the stand. Two of those witnesses encountered Capell driving east in the westbound lane before the crash while the other two came across the crash immediately after it happened.
The DA’s office believes Capell drove about 9 1/2 miles in the wrong direction beginning in Sherman and heading toward Stow. During that drive, she passed hundreds of backward reflectors and road signs as well as oncoming headlights.
“While going the wrong way, sleep deprived, paranoid and impaired she decided to add something else into the chaos she was creating,” Bentley said. “The defendant was talking on her cell phone at the time of the crash.”
Barone, though, said Capell’s actions after entering the interstate scarcely describe someone paranoid or impaired.
For one thing, he noted, none of the motorists who called 911 reported an erratic driver. In fact, Barone said, Capell was seen traveling at a reasonable rate with her headlights on while on the right side of the westbound lane — as if on a two-way road. As such, encountering oncoming headlights wouldn’t have seemed unusual, he said.
Barone also plans to play the recording of the call between Capell and the 911 dispatcher to jurors. He said the conversation highlights that Capell was lost and was attempting to find her way back to Interstate 90 to head south.