On Dec. 20, 2011, Kelly Rider was making Christmas cookies with her friend Emilee Neely. The pair decided to go out with friends.
“Sadly, Kelly Rider did not know ... that it would be the last night of her life,” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller told a jury on Monday.
With the opening statements, the trial of Mathew Shirk, 30, of Bellefonte, began.
Shirk faces 26 counts in connection with the accident that left Rider, 24, dead. Shirk, Neely and passenger Ryan Daniels were all injured.
Charges include felonies such as vehicular homicide, aggravated assault and homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, plus a litany of misdemeanors and summary offenses.
“This case is about assignment of responsibility,” Parks Miller told the jury.
Defense attorney Brian Manchester did not agree.
“It’s a tragedy that a young woman died. Let’s get that out of the way,” he said, but cautioned the jury, “Sympathy is not a fact.”
There were plenty of sympathetic moments as Andrew Hummel, the man going to work around 4 a.m., recounted hearing the crash, “like a construction truck dumping a load of stone,” then going to help and finding the survivors. He broke down on the stand when he talked about finding Rider’s body and covering her with coats from his truck.
Daniels and Neely told different stories of how the night unfolded.
Daniels said he saw Shirk drinking Bud Light several times throughout the evening, including while driving the 2003 Ford F-350.
Neely, who admitted to dating Shirk after the incident for several months and whose mother was the bartender that served them earlier in the evening, said the defendant had only three beers and didn’t finish one of them.
A six-pack of Bud Light was found scattered at the scene. Daniels said Shirk bought it and drank it while driving.
Neely said Daniels and Rider bought it and drank in the back seat.
At one point, they both agreed that everyone stopped and got out of the truck in the middle of their “mountain run” and took pictures while Shirk drank a beer. Daniels said that’s when he noticed how glassy Shirk’s eyes were and offered to drive.
Shirk turned him down, he said, because the truck wasn’t his.
The big truck, lifted six inches with 35-inch mud tires, had belonged to Shirk’s brother before being sold to a friend who let the defendant drive it that evening. The vehicle wasn’t insured. Shirk’s license had expired.
As the group left the dirt roads and began driving on state Route 144 near Snow Shoe, Daniels said, Shirk was driving about 60 mph. Neely insisted it was about 45 mph.
Evidence introduced from crash reconstructionist Trooper Frank Gaus showed how the vehicle slipped and spun, careening off the road and pinballing through a series of five collisions with trees, striking one eight feet off the ground, crushing others beneath it.
“Is there even a roof left beneath that bag hanging down?” Parks Miller asked, showing one photograph.
“That is the roof,” Gaus said.
Other pictures showed Rider’s broken body lying where it was thrown from the truck.
Family members looked away, as they had during the graphic autopsy photos that showed cuts, abrasions and massive head trauma, but not the rip in her heart that was the primary cause of death.
Prosecution testimony continues Tuesday, with the defense slated to follow before the case goes to the jury for deliberation.