Mathew Shirk convicted of vehicular homicide in 2011 wreck

A Bellefonte man will spend a minimum of three to six years in prison for the 2011 crash that claimed the life of a friend.

Mathew Shirk was found guilty just after 10 p.m. Tuesday. A jury returned guilty verdicts for 17 of the listed charges, including vehicular homicide, driving under the influence and three counts of aggravated assault. Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine issued a ruling of guilt on the nine remaining summary charges.

The charges stem from the Dec. 20, 2011 crash that killed Kelly Rider and injured Shirk and two other passengers on state Route 144 outside Snow Shoe. Shirk remains free on bail pending a July 7 sentencing. Grine allowed bail, which is not a right after a conviction. He denied a prosecution request to increase Shirk’s pre-trial unsecured non-monetary bail to a $250,000 straight cash bond.

“We are thrilled with the verdict,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. “We are so happy with closure for the family finally.”

The final sessions of trial became a battle of witnesses as defense attorney Brian Manchester presented testimony from Randall Tackett, of Athens, Ga., a pharmacologist who challenged the prosecution’s evidence of a blood alcohol level of .196 two hours after the crash.

Tackett alleged that Shirk’s own injuries from the crash, including a fractured skull, could have caused elevated lactic acid levels that would cause a false positive result in the blood tests used at both Mount Nittany Medical Center and Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, which reported a .11 level about five hours after the collision. Witnesses for both sides estimated blood alcohol level at the time of the crash to be .226 based on the blood tests. The prosecution said that made sense while the defense said it was impossible.

Prosecution witness Dr. Harry Kamerow, a pathologist at Mount Nittany Medical Center, challenged the validity of Tackett’s cited lactic acid study from 1995 on several levels. Kamerow said that the allegations that the samples could be artificially inflated were exaggerated.

Miller challenged Tackett’s credibility as well, producing video of him advising defense attorneys on using the lactic acid theory for clients at a conference on DUI, and then presenting documentation on Tackett being barred from testifying in two different federal courts due to “highly speculative” and “not scientifically valid” testimony.

Earlier Tuesday, the defendant was called to the stand.

“She was beautiful. A hillbilly princess, a hillbilly Barbie,” Shirk said about Rider when he took the stand as the first witness in his own defense Tuesday afternoon.

Shirk, a 30-year-old Marine veteran of the Iraq War, told the court he has only “brief flashes” of memory from that night, when the pickup truck he was driving crashed on state Route 144 near Snow Shoe.

He testified about a brief relationship after the incident with Neely, saying it ended because of the stress of the situation, but that they have remained friends.

Neely and Shirk admitted on the stand that they had exchanged text messages Sunday before the trial began Monday.

“She wanted me to know that she is there for me, no matter what,” Shirk said.

Prosecutors said this points to bias on the part of Neely and her mother, Annette Neely, the bartender who served the four occupants of the truck before their fateful mountain ride.

Annette Neely also testified, admitting on cross-examination by Parks Miller, that she and her daughter, a witness for the prosecution, had met with defense attorney Brian Manchester last week to “talk about what our answers were to get straight.”

Manchester objected to what he called “offensive attempts” by Parks Miller to suggest collusion.

On Monday, Neely and Daniels offered conflicting testimony about how fast Shirk was driving and about the amount of alcohol Shirk consumed before the crash.

Also on Tuesday, the commonwealth recalled crash reconstructionist Trooper Frank Gaus for further explanation of the hydroplaning and slipping that caused the 9,000-pound Ford F-350 truck outfitted with a 6-inch lift kit and 35-inch mud tires to slide across the road.

Manchester initially objected to the recall, but did take another chance to question the trooper.

“You can’t state that no matter what he did, if he had been sober as a judge, he could have regained control,” Manchester said.

“This wasn’t an instantaneous matter,” Gaus replied. “He reached a certain critical speed that caused the tires to break traction with the roadway. He had an opportunity to regain control. Most likely due to his impairment, he didn’t realize he lost control.”

Waiting for the verdict outside the courtroom, Shirk was calm and resigned, making plans for covering his work shift if he wasn’t able to make it and telling his mother he was glad that he took the stand, no matter the outcome. The most important thing, he said, was that he tell everyone that he was sorry.

Lori Falce can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFalce.