Three years after a truck crash in northern New Hampshire killed seven motorcyclists and exposed widespread failures to track problem drivers beyond state lines, a jury on Tuesday acquitted the truck driver of criminal charges after just 2 1/2 hours of deliberations.
Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, began crying as the jury delivered its verdicts, clearing him of killing seven motorcyclists who had gathered in Randolph, N.H., on June 21, 2019, for a meeting of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club, a charitable group of Marine veterans.
His defense centered on evidence that the motorcyclist leading the pack, Albert “Woody” Mazza Jr., 59, had been drinking Coors Light before getting on the road and lost control of his motorcycle, causing the collision. Mazza’s blood alcohol level was .135, well over the legal driving limit of .08, according to court testimony.
“He was drunk. He was not looking where he was going. He lost control of his motorcycle and he slid into the front of Vlad Zhukovskyy’s truck,” Jay Duguay, a public defender for Zhukovskyy, said during closing arguments on Tuesday.
Lawyers for Zhukovskyy acknowledged that he ingested cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl at his home in West Springfield, Mass., on the morning of the crash, but contended he was not impaired when the crash occurred at about 6:30 p.m., about 10 1/2 hours later.
Superior Court Judge Peter H. Bornstein agreed, ruling last week that there was “simply insufficient evidence” for a jury to find that Zhukovskyy was “impaired to any degree” at the time of the collision.
In his ruling, Bornstein dismissed eight charges related to whether Zhukovskyy was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but allowed 15 other charges to go to the jury.
Zhukovskyy was acquitted of seven counts of manslaughter, seven counts of negligent homicide, and one count of reckless conduct. He had been on trial in Coös County Superior Court in Lancaster since July 25.
His acquittal prompted an outcry from the motorcycle club and its supporters.
Josh Morin, the most severely injured motorcyclist to survive the crash, said in an interview that he was “dumbfounded” by the verdict. He testified in the trial last week and has sued the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
“It’s a sad day. I’m in disbelief,” said Morin, a nurse who lives in Dalton, Mass., and has undergone 25 surgeries for his injuries.
He said Mazza’s motorcycle didn’t cross the double yellow line into the oncoming lane before the collision.
“Woody wouldn’t want me to lie for him. If Woody crossed the line, I would say he crossed the line and hit the truck,” Morin said. “That’s not what I saw.”
The victims were from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. In addition to Mazza, the crash killed Daniel Pereira, 58; Aaron Perry, 45; Desma Oakes, 42; Michael Ferazzi, 62; and Jo-Ann and Edward Corr, a married couple from Lakeville, Mass., who were 58.
In a statement, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said the victims “did not receive justice today.
“That is an absolute tragedy,” Sununu said. “I share in the shock, outrage, and anger that so many have expressed in the three years since the seven members of the Jarheads Motorcycle Club were taken from us. My heart goes out to their families, friends, and loved ones on this especially dark day.”
Governor Charlie Baker’s office didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
New Hampshire Attorney General John M. Formella added that “we firmly believe that the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Mr. Zhukovskyy should have been found guilty of the charges in this case and held responsible for causing seven deaths and numerous injuries,” he said. “We thank the Court and the jurors for their service, and while we are extremely disappointed, we respect the verdict and our system of justice.”
The verdict was at odds with findings from the National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded in 2020 that Zhukovskyy’s drug use was the “probable cause” of his initiating the collision. At the time, Zhukovskyy was driving for Westfield Transport, a trucking company in West Springfield, Mass.
The board’s findings, approved in December 2020, concluded that while some of the motorcyclists were impaired by alcohol, their intoxication didn’t cause the crash.
The trial did not address the bureaucratic missteps that allowed Zhukovskyy to hold a valid license on the day of the crash, even though the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles could have suspended his license beforehand. In the weeks before the collision, the agency had received two warning notices from Connecticut to suspend his license but didn’t act on them.
The NTSB found the shortcomings in Massachusetts are commonplace throughout the nation’s licensing system for drivers, echoing the findings of a Globe series published in August 2020. Last year, the series received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
“People should be flabbergasted that this has been able to happen,” Robert L. Sumwalt, then chairman of the NTSB, said in December 2020.
Before jurors began deliberating Tuesday, Bornstein reminded them of his earlier ruling that they could not to consider evidence about Zhukovskyy’s impairment.
Bornstein made the ruling on Aug. 3, when he spoke at length about testimony from law enforcement officers who met with Zhukovskyy immediately after the crash and said they didn’t detect signs that he was impaired by drugs or alcohol.
He noted that Zhukovskyy told a New Hampshire trooper after the crash that he felt “awake and alert” as a result of consuming cocaine.
“It isn’t evidence of impairment,” Bornstein said from the bench. “It’s evidence of what it says.”
During closing arguments, Zhukovskyy’s lawyers accused prosecutors of ignoring the findings of a New Hampshire State Police reconstruction unit that contradicted their theory Zhukovskyy crossed into the oncoming lane. A defense expert testified that the crash happened on the center line and would have occurred even if the truck had been in the middle of its lane because Mazza’s motorcycle was heading that direction.
Even with the acquittal, Zhukovskyy’s future remains unclear. A native of Ukraine, Zhukovskyy has permanent resident status in the United States, although federal officials have filed a detainer for his deportation based on his criminal record, prosecutors have said. Prior to the 2019 crash in New Hampshire, Zhukovskyy pleaded guilty in Ohio, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to charges alleging drug possession, larceny, and providing false information.
After court was dismissed Tuesday, Zhukovskyy remained in custody and was taken to a jail in Grafton County, said Coös County Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Marcou. A spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Zhukovskyy was taken into ICE custody, where he will remain until he appears before an immigration judge. The spokesman said the agency does not set court dates or play a role in the hearing process.
Zhukovskyy also faces prosecution in Connecticut, where he was charged in May 2019 with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the offense that should have prompted the Massachusetts Registry to pull his license. His next court date in that case is scheduled for Sept. 1, court records show.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Zhukovskyy’s family expressed condolences to “family and friends affected by this tragedy” and said they were grateful to God, the court and the defense attorneys for an “honest and fair trial.”
A Massachusetts Registry spokeswoman said Tuesday that Zhukovskyy’s commercial license is rescinded and his license to drive noncommercial vehicles is suspended.
The leaders of Westfield Transport face a separate prosecution in federal court in Massachusetts. Dunyadar Gasanov, 38, and his brother, Dartanyan Gasanov, 37, are accused of falsifying records of company violations of federal safety rules. They have pleaded not guilty.
Westfield Transport shut down after the New Hampshire crash.