A Baton Rouge woman convicted last summer in a horrific Interstate 10 crash that killed two adults and three young children testified Wednesday that a St. Landry Parish man tailed her for 10 miles and then tried to pass her on the shoulder before clipping her vehicle, shooting across the median and colliding with the car carrying the five victims.
But two other witnesses — Dara Soulier, of Gonzales, and Kevin Patton, of Baton Rouge — were driving westbound on I-10 that tragic night of March 13, 2011, and testified both Hall and Leger appeared to have been engaged in a high-speed game of “cat and mouse” or road rage.
East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors rested their case against Leger on Wednesday evening after calling a dozen witnesses.
Leger’s attorney, Tommy Damico, is expected to begin calling witnesses Thursday morning.
Leger, 32, of Palmetto, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent several hours after the crash, state troopers testified. In Louisiana, a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving for those 21 and older.
Leger faces five to 30 years in prison on each of the five vehicular homicide counts if found guilty.
Troopers determined Hall did not have alcohol in her system.
In his opening statement Wednesday morning to the six jurors and one alternate juror, Damico nevertheless pointed the finger of blame squarely at Hall.
“There was dangerous driving on the part of one person, but it wasn’t my client,” he argued. “This entire case is based on the actions of one person — Kelsye Hall.”
Damico said Leger is having to endure “an unjust and improper prosecution.”
But Assistant District Attorney Ron Gathe, who also prosecuted Hall, countered that justice demands Leger’s conviction.
“They’re driving reckless, extremely reckless,” Gathe told the jury, noting that a nearly empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum was found in Leger’s pickup. “No doubt it’s vehicular homicide. Without a doubt vehicular homicide.”
The rum bottle was unbroken, despite Leger’s truck being ripped into three pieces. Gathe described the bottle as a key piece of evidence.
“I don’t know how it made it, but it did,” State Police trooper James Summerford testified.
Hall did not testify at her August trial on five counts of negligent homicide, saying Wednesday her attorney advised her not to do so. State District Judge Trudy White found her guilty as charged and sentenced her in October to two years in prison. She remains on probation for five years. Hall testified Wednesday she does not believe the verdict in her case was correct.
Killed in the crash were Kimberly Stagg, 19, and Effie Fontenot, 29, both of Prairieville, and Fontenot’s three young sons: Austin Fontenot, 3; Hunter Johnson, 7; and Keagan Fontenot, 11. The crash occurred on I-10 East between Highland Road and the Bluff Road overpass near the Ascension Parish line.
Nick Washington, an East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office investigator, said the burned victims were still buckled in their seat belts. Summerford, the state trooper, said the chaotic accident scene resembled a plane crash.
John Robie, a pastor and volunteer Ascension Parish firefighter, witnessed the crash while driving eastbound on I-10 and stopped to try to render assistance.
“The vehicle burst into flames. As I approached, it got hotter and hotter,” he testified. “There were screams coming from the vehicle. Yes, they (the screams) did stop.”
Effie Fontenot’s mother, Veronica Sue Fontenot, testified Wednesday that Keegan loved to hunt and fish, and Hunter enjoyed playing in the dirt with toy trucks.
“Austin used to love to snuggle with Maw Maw and read,” she said, choking up.
Stagg’s mother, Karen Stagg, showed the jury a framed 2010 graduation photograph of her youngest daughter.
Damico asked White to declare a mistrial after he observed a juror make a religious gesture after viewing photos of the victims’ burned car with the charred bodies inside, but the judge denied the request.
Hall testified she was driving back to Baton Rouge from Thibodaux and was near the Tanger Factory Outlet Center in Gonzales when she noticed a white pickup following her very closely. The truck’s headlights then began to flash.
“My first reaction was to let him pass,” she said, but every time she changed lanes, he moved right behind her. “I tried to let him pass multiple times.”
Eventually, Hall said, Leger passed her on the right shoulder and as he moved back into the right lane, he clipped the front of her green sport-utility vehicle.
Damico pressed Hall on the fact that she made no mention in her written statement to State Police of the pickup allegedly chasing her.
“I did not lie in my statement. I told them what happened at the time of the accident,” she insisted.
Hall also denied swerving back and forth in an attempt to prevent Leger from passing her.
But Soulier and Patton said that is precisely what Hall appeared to have been doing.
“I noticed the car in front swerving back and forth,” Soulier said of the SUV, adding that both vehicles “flew” by her. “At first I thought it was friends just playing, racing, being stupid.” She said it appeared the pickup was trying to get around the SUV.
“Did that white truck ever disengage from the playing?” Gathe, the prosecutor, asked.
“No,” Soulier replied.
Patton also said the SUV “blew by me, like I was standing still” and was followed closely by the white truck.
“Did it appear they were both involved?” Gathe asked Patton.
“Absolutely,” he answered.