Witnesses in Winter Trial Recount Day of Crash

By Beacon Staff

The second day of testimony in Evergreen teenager Justine Winter’s homicide trial was an emotional one, as witnesses began piecing together what happened before the car crash that killed two people in March 2009.

Winter, 17, is accused of intentionally driving her Pontiac Grand Am across the centerline and hitting Erin Thompson’s Subaru on U.S. Highway 93. Thompson, 35, and her son, Caden Odell, were killed.

Investigators charged Winter with two counts of deliberate homicide after finding text messages from Winter to her boyfriend at the time, Ryan Langford, alleging that she crashed her vehicle in a suicide attempt.

In Flathead County District Court Wednesday, the prosecution called several witnesses, including Langford, who testified about Winter’s frame of mind before the March 19, 2009, crash and her reasons for driving on Highway 93 that night.

According to Langford, 18, he and Winter had a fight earlier in the evening after he found something from another boy in her room. She drove him from her Evergreen home to his house about 10 miles away, where they talked for a while in her car and then he went inside.

After she left, Langford said he received text messages from Winter, some of which read “Good bye … My last words …,” and “If I won. I would have you. And I wouldn’t crash my car,” according to court records. But Langford said he was not concerned at that point.

“I knew Justine and I still do. It didn’t concern me because I knew Justine,” Langford said.

He did become troubled when Winter did not return his calls, but not because he thought Winter would hurt herself or anyone else.

“The reason I cared about Justine so much and we were so close is because she was the nicest person I knew,” Langford said.

Once he learned Winter hadn’t made it home, Langford said he and his father went to search for her, finding out on the way that she had been in a collision and was taken to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Earlier testimony stated that once Langford arrived at the hospital, officers took photographs of the text messages on his phone and took the phone as evidence.

The nature of Langford and Winter’s relationship was explored through various witnesses, including a clinical social worker, Treasa Glinnwater, who counseled Winter after the accident, and a friend of Winter’s from high school.

Glinnwater testified that Winter had told her she would sometimes drive to Whitefish to clear her mind, which was probably why she was driving south on Highway 93 back to Evergreen. Glinnwater also said that Winter told her she had no memory of the night of the crash.

Glinnwater also noted that she did not think Winter had suicidal characteristics and was an excellent student. Winter and Langford had used the topic of suicide as a power mechanism in their relationship, Glinnwater said, but neither meant it seriously.

Along with the testimony regarding Winter’s state of mind before the crash, several of Wednesday’s witnesses described the crash and its aftermath. In what was perhaps the most emotional testimony of the day, Richard Poeppel, one of the first people at the crash scene, took the stand.

Poeppel said he and his girlfriend were driving on Highway 93 returning home from Costco. He was following a white Subaru, driven by Thompson, heading north.

Poeppel, who said he was driving 45 mph at the time, noted that Thompson braked as she came upon the construction near Church Drive outside of Kalispell, and once more as she drove onto the Stillwater Bridge.

Then, Poeppel said he saw a dark car veer into the Thompson’s lane and collide with her vehicle, pushing it up on to the bridge rail. The dark car, Winter’s Pontiac, came to a rest in the southbound lane, he said.

He said he parked and ran to the Subaru, opening the door and catching Thompson as she started to fall out.

“Looked like she was trying to tell me something, but at that moment I was just trying to prop her up,” Poeppel said. “I stayed with her ’till she passed away.”

“It seemed like eternity,” Poeppel said. “Finally a nurse came up and told me she had expired.”

Winter’s attorney, Max Battle, questioned Poeppel about the witness statement Poeppel mailed to the sheriff’s office the next day. Battle noted that Poeppel hadn’t included any information about Winter’s car driving into Thompson’s lane, and Poeppel agreed he did not write it down.

He said, “I knew what I was talking about” when he had been questioned about the crash.

Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. James Kitchin said the data recovered from Winter’s car’s “black box” indicated that she was traveling 86 mph two seconds before her airbag deployed.

Sgt. Ernie Freebury was the coroner for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office when the crash ocurred. Freebury said he determined Thompson’s cause of death was a crushed chest. She also had compound femur fractures, he said.

Caden Odell also had serious fractures, including his femurs, Freebury said, but he determined the boy’s cause of death was a broken neck.

“They would have died without question, fairly immediately,” Freebury said.

Freebury concluded that the manner of the deaths in this case was a two-vehicle accident, and, after reading Winter’s text messages and reviewing information on the crash scene, declared the deaths homicides.

As the coroner, Freebury decided against performing autopsies on either Thompson or Odell.

“I was very comfortable with the cause of death with both individuals and I had the mechanism of death right in front of me with two crashed vehicles,” Freebury said, later adding, “the two instruments of death were both in the middle of the highway.”

In cross-examination, Battle asked Freebury if, since there was no autopsy, Thompson could have died from a cerebral hemorrhage or a stroke.

Freebury said those were two possibilities, but he maintained his position on her cause of death.

The trial is scheduled to run for two weeks.

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