The evening of May 20, 2013 was perfect for a run. The clear blue skies above Champlain, N.Y., a town of nearly 6,000 people on the Canadian border less than an hour south of Montreal, faded slowly toward dusk. The previous day's rain left a pleasant trace of humidity in the 63-degree air. The sun officially set at 8:20 p.m., but this far north in the late spring, light lingers. Some 20 minutes after sunset, Angela Bechard recalls, it seemed like mid-afternoon.
Bechard and her best friend, Ashley Poissant, were covering ground, just as they had been doing for the better part of a year. Joined by Bechard's two daughters, 13-year-old Skyler and 16-year-old Kylie, the two women were slowing to a walk after running through the village of Champlain and then to its outskirts, on a lightly traveled rural route called Perry Mills Road. According to Bechard, the foursome, all dressed in black yoga pants, were strung out single file along the pavement's edge. Kylie was about 10 feet ahead of the others, wearing a black and pink top. Bringing up the rear was Skyler, wearing a black short-sleeved T-shirt and neon blue running shoes. She trailed about 5 feet behind her mother, Angela, in a hot pink top and teal blue Nikes. Angela, in turn, was just a stride behind Poissant.
Poissant, who had been running on the white fog line that marked the outside edge of the lane, didn't lead this pack, but she catalyzed the group. The 27-year-old mother of three was a recent fitness devotee — and she embraced exercise with the zeal of the newly converted, successfully convincing her friends to join her. She loved name brands and accented her outfit with a bright yellow Aeropostale hoodie. What really set her apart were her running shoes — hot pink Reeboks with white soles and reflective stripes. "She was all proud of them," Bechard says. "She's like, ‘Look at my shoes, feel these, they're so light. You got to get yourself a pair — they're only $84.'"
Poissant ran because running, and fitness in general, had changed her life.
For Poissant, running was about way more than the gear. "She'd have run in her ‘hooker' boots if she had to," Bechard jokes. Poissant ran because running, and fitness in general, had changed her life. A year earlier, she'd weighed 185 pounds, weight she didn't carry well on her 5'4 frame. "She was down," says another friend, Jane Favreau, "which I believe had to do with her weight." But in the year leading up to May 20, Poissant had transformed herself. In addition to running with Bechard, she did intense Wii Fit workouts alongside Favreau, shedding 55 pounds, and landing a store manager's position at the McDonald's in Champlain. At around the same time she earned her keys to the store, she got the keys to a new car, a 2013 Ford Focus she bought for herself.
And while she was a devoted wife and mother to three young boys — "Her family was her everything," Favreau says — she was now opening up to her friends in ways she hadn't before. They heard more of her dorky laugh that could fill a room, and saw more of her smile that lit one up. "Her self-esteem was through the roof, and with her new body and her new job," Favreau says, "she was golden. Absolutely golden."
What they felt most, though, was Poissant's irrepressible energy, which carried her friends along with her, helping each of them lose weight, too — in Favreau's case, nearly 90 pounds. That energy coerced Bechard and her daughters to follow Poissant's example and end a gorgeous spring day by joining her on a run.
As runners, they were enthusiastic but unschooled. None of them wore reflective tops or safety lights. And they ran in the same direction as traffic, in violation of New York State law. While cyclists are instructed to ride with traffic, pedestrians must "whenever possible" walk or run on the opposite shoulder when sharing roadways with vehicles. The rationale: Pedestrians and joggers have a better chance of averting danger if they stare drivers in the face. As new runners, though, the women didn't trust the rule. They'd run against traffic a few weeks earlier, "and cars would whisk right by us," Bechard says, without slowing down or making room. "We were going with traffic because it felt safer."
They chose to run on Perry Mills for a couple of reasons. First, the rural road between State Route 11 and the Canadian border reminded Ashley of her husband, Matt, the father of her three kids, who used to live just off Perry Mills when they were dating. More important, says Bechard, "there are hardly any cars." Indeed, there's little reason to travel on Perry Mills unless you live on it. Bootleggers used it to move contraband during Prohibition, and the street once led to a working frog farm. During part of the Cold War, the Pentagon maintained an underground nuclear missile silo just off Perry Mills. But the rum-runners, like the frogs and missiles, are long departed.
Around 8:40, the women neared a bend in the road just past a split-level home at No. 58 Perry Mills. The speed limit is 55 mph, but the narrow blacktop barely accommodates two traffic lanes. The edge of the pavement is just 2 inches from the fog line; a mere 18 inches beyond that, the dirt shoulder drops off several feet into a rocky streambed, a wet, weedy mess in the spring and summer.
It was here that a black 2009 Buick Lucerne came up behind the four runners. Whenever she'd hear a vehicle approaching, Skyler, in back, would yell "Car!" or "Truck!" and the runners would move over as far as they could. "This one we never heard," Angela Bechard says. The Buick passed Skyler without incident, but then the passenger-side rearview mirror struck Angela in the left arm, spinning her clockwise, destroying the mirror and leaving the area around her left elbow swollen and bruised for weeks.
Poissant was not so lucky. The right front side of the 4,000-pound vehicle drove into her back. The headlight shattered, and Poissant was vaulted back over the hood. She struck the lower corner of the windshield on the passenger side, creating a 2-foot glass spider web, and likely became airborne.
Police photos show a pink Reebok resting about 4 feet from the fog line in the westbound lane; investigators from New York State Police Troop B believe the impact lifted Poissant clean out of her left running shoe. Police found her other pink Reebok lodged in a tree 19 feet off the roadway, some 20 yards beyond the left shoe. In a rocky embankment a few feet off the road, 60 feet from the estimated point of impact, Poissant herself came to rest, her skull and spine fractured, her pelvis broken.
Kylie's phone showed she dialed 911 at 8:41. Police arriving at the scene found glass and plastic debris lining the road for 95 feet, and the battered Buick parked nearby. They also found the Buick's driver, an 85-year-old man named Ronald Trombly, who lived about 10 minutes away in the neighboring town of Mooers. A state trooper reported smelling alcohol on his breath; Trombly admitted to police that he drank two Michelob Lights at the Patriot Pub on Champlain's Main Street and was on his way home when he hit the joggers. He told police the young women were running in the middle of the lane, and that he heard a thud as if "someone had thrown something at the car."
Police took Trombly to the hospital in Plattsburgh, 25 miles away. Technicians drew blood some 90 minutes after the crash, tests of which later revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.12 percent, above the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.
Meanwhile, emergency medical technicians saw that Poissant's condition was critical, and had her airlifted across Lake Champlain to Fletcher Allen Medical Center in Burlington, Vt., about 40 miles away. They couldn't save her.
Ashley Poissant died in the early hours of May 21, the morning after a perfect evening for a run.
* * *
There's an ongoing culture war in America between fitness enthusiasts and automobiles.
There's an ongoing culture war in America between fitness enthusiasts and automobiles — a quiet, persistent, and almost entirely one-sided battle that creates new casualties every day. The legal skirmish surrounding the death of Ashley Poissant reveals this stark divide. The Clinton County District Attorney and Poissant's friends insist that when an 85-year-old man with an unsafe level of alcohol in his blood and a steering wheel in his hand collides with and kills a 27-year-old woman, it is a crime, a form of homicide. Trombly's attorney says it's a horrible accident, one that the women contributed to by running at dusk on the wrong side of the road. He believes an accident, even a fatal one, doesn't warrant sending an octogenarian to a New York state penitentiary.
So far, both sides have won a battle in court. When the DA's office first brought Trombly's case before a grand jury last summer, the grand jury declined to indict him. Outrage erupted in the community, and an online campaign called "Justice for Ashley" quickly collected nearly 2,000 signatures seeking a second grand jury.
In an unusual move, DA Andrew Wylie declared that the grand jury erred, and he asked a judge to grant the state another chance to indict Trombly. The court allowed the rare mulligan, and in November a second grand jury indicted Trombly on eight counts, the most serious of which are second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Whatever happens in Trombly's criminal case, that won't be the final gavel. Poissant's family members, who declined to be interviewed for this story, plan civil action against the driver. Regardless of what the courts decide, this collision on a lightly traveled, remote road in a sparsely populated part of America won't be an isolated incident.
Fatal U.S. auto crashes involving "nonoccupants" — walkers, runners and bicyclists — have surged in the past three years of available federal data, from 2010 through 2012. More than 4,700 pedestrians, an undetermined number of them runners, and 726 cyclists died on American roads in 2012. That figure exceeds the total number of U.S. soldiers killed during the Iraq War, accounting for 17 percent of all traffic deaths — up from 13 percent in 2003.
This spike stems partly from a public good: a growing awareness of the benefits of exercise, even in places like New York's North Country, where, like the rest of the country, obesity rates soared for the better part of three decades. State statistics showed 70 percent of Clinton County's population was overweight in 2009, but local health providers and recreation leaders have pushed back hard, encouraging everyday people to exercise. In the last few years, numerous running races have sprung up in the Champlain Valley, and cycling is booming. The phenomenon isn't just for cultural elites and downstaters who own second homes in this scenic region of forests, farms, mountains and lakes. Working-class people are buying in, using a growing recreational trails system and entering couch-to-5K race programs. They're also using roadways to train.
But these athletes confront hazards — aging drivers unaccustomed to sharing the road, young drivers distracted by text messages, and drivers of all ages addled by intoxicants. And public safety experts say too many recreation enthusiasts fail to do all they can to make themselves visible to automobiles.
"Every time I hear these stories, and Ashley's really hit home, these things always horrify you," says Lisa Getty, an avid runner who lives a few miles south of Champlain. "Your first reaction is to come up with reasons why it wouldn't happen to you. But the sad fact is it can happen to anybody."
Getty, who dons fluorescent clothing and flashing lights to do her roadwork, remembers running near her home and diving into a ditch to avoid an oncoming driver who was texting. "To this day I don't know that she ever saw me," Getty says. "I try to take all the precautions I can, but I don't know what you do if somebody's out driving on the road when they really shouldn't be, whether they're texting or they're drinking or just not paying attention."
In just the last two months, 45-year-old Ryuta Yamaguchi of Santa Ynez, Calif., was hit and killed by an 89-year-old driver; 45-year-old James Callaghan, of Laurel, N.Y., was run over and killed by one, and possibly two, hit-and-run drivers on a foggy morning; and Mechanicsville, Va.'s Meg Cross Menzies was struck and killed by a physician who allegedly had a BAC of 0.11 percent. All were runners.
"As the population gets more active," says Lt. John Coryea, public information officer for Troop B, "the likelihood we'll see more of these collisions is going to increase as well."
* * *
Ronald Trombly isn't talking, but at his arraignment hearing, he looks pretty good for 85.
Ronald Trombly isn't talking, but at his arraignment hearing in November, he looks pretty good for 85. He's dressed in sharp blue slacks, a belt, and what appears to be a fairly new blue and white flannel shirt. He's bald on top, with a bit of fuzz emanating from his snow-white fringe of hair. In court, he wears wire-rimmed glasses, and pays close attention to the judge. There's no sign of the shell shock evident in his mug shot the night his car hit Poissant and Bechard.
One of his court filings says he suffers from chronic back problems, and that the crash and his handcuffed ride in a squad car afterward "exasperated" it. The only time Trombly betrayed any frailty at the hearing was when he rose from his seat after his plea of not guilty. He stayed bent at the waist, hunched over, and grabbed the table next to his chair to balance himself. He then leaned against the table with his backside, before gradually standing upright and walking gingerly out the side door of the courtroom — the one criminal defendants use to enter and exit. Still, after the hearing, in the lobby of the county court building, he's alert enough to spot the local paper's photographer waiting for him outside the main parking lot entrance. He and his driver make an about-face, and head for a different exit.
A choice to take an alternate route may have played a part in Trombly's current predicament. On the evening of May 20, Trombly drove to the Patriot Pub, a small tavern on the first floor of a two-story building he himself owns. Trombly never let his age keep him from driving. His Buick had 114,023 miles on the odometer. "He's driven more than a million miles in his life," says his attorney, Stanley Cohen.
Around 8:30 p.m., he left the Patriot and headed toward his home in Mooers using Perry Mills Road, a humpbacked route that Google Maps indicates is more than 8 miles and takes 17 minutes. The faster, most direct way to his house would have been to drive south from the Patriot on Main Street, take a right onto South Street and then jump on westbound State Route 11, a 6.8-mile ride that takes just 12 minutes.
But Trombly has a history with South Street and Route 11. State Police say that on the evening of May 8, 2004, Trombly was pulled over near the intersection and arrested for driving while intoxicated, with a blood alcohol content of 0.18 percent. That's roughly what a 180-pound man would register if he drank nine 12-ounce beers in an hour.
The drunken driving arrest came soon after a period of hard times for Trombly, a story told in obituaries in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican:
— Jacqueline "Jackie" Trombly, 72, of Mooers, died Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003, at her residence ...
She is survived by her husband, Ronald R. Trombly of Mooers; her children and their spouses ...
— Roxanne I. Dumas, 49, of Mooers, died Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003, at the CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh.
She was born in Flint, Mich., on Nov. 4, 1953, the daughter of Ronald R. and Jacqueline (Owens) Trombly ...
— Louanne J. Dragoon, 49, of Mooers, died Friday, Oct. 17, 2003, at her home after a courageous battle with cancer, surrounded by her family and friends.
She was born in Flint, Mich., on Nov. 4, 1953, the daughter of Ronald R. and Jacqueline (Owens) Trombly ...
Within a two-month period, Trombly had buried his wife and two of his seven children.
Within a two-month period, Trombly had buried his wife and two of his seven children, twin daughters Roxanne and Louanne. Seven months after the last of three funerals, he was under arrest. A little more than a month later, in June of 2004, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of driving while ability impaired, and agreed to a 90-day driver's license suspension. After that, aside from the odd real estate deal, minor litigation and some citations for building violations on a few of his many local properties, his life was uneventful until May 20. "What's he done since 2003?" asks Cohen, Trombly's attorney. "Nothing. He's 85 years old. He had a terrible period in his life. He lives an isolated life."
Through it all, though, Trombly kept on driving. One frequent destination was the McDonald's near the intersection of Route 11 and Interstate 87 in Champlain, where he'd drop in as often as three times a day to drink coffee and read newspapers. Jane Favreau frequently took his order when she worked there with Poissant. After Poissant's death, people kept calling Favreau to tell her that she knew the suspect, and so did Ashley. Favreau didn't recognize the name, so she didn't believe them. "When I saw his picture in the paper I almost died," she says. "Oh my God! Yeah. We both know him. We served this man."
* * *
More than three months after the crash, in September, Favreau is afraid to touch the console. The Wii sits beneath her LG Plus 65-inch flat screen hanging on the wall of her ranch-style home in Champlain. She won't change the settings. She won't replace it or upgrade it. She just wants people to leave it alone. She is trying to hold on to her memories of a friend, to the piece of Poissant embedded in Japanese electronics, to the virtual identity that Poissant herself helped construct through respiration and perspiration and the burning of calories and the achieving of goals.
A short, muscular woman with brown hair and a ready smile beneath her rectangular eyeglass frames, Favreau is nonetheless cautious about even turning it on, and not because her 14-month-old baby is sleeping in the next room. A few months earlier, her 6-year-old son accidentally deleted six months of Poissant's Wii Fit workout data. "I'm supposed to transfer everything over (to newer versions), but I'm scared to," she says. "I'm scared she's going to get lost in the switch, and I don't think I'll handle that too well."
That said, Favreau grabs the remote and pushes the power button, because it's a way to reveal a little bit of who her friend was. What comes to life onscreen is a large brunette head, wearing eyeglasses nearly identical in style to Favreau's. The head sprouts from a cartoonishly tiny body, because this is, after all, a cartoon, an anime-style avatar. Favreau watches as the avatar jumps around on the screen and smiles. Then her animated arms gradually droop and the rest of her comes to a standstill in front of a graph showing Poissant's workouts, her calories burned, her weight loss. And at this point, Favreau launches into the story.
Before Bechard's wedding in August of 2011, when Favreau and Poissant were bridesmaids, the three close friends, all mothers with young children, had talked about getting fit. Pregnancies added pounds, and the demands of child-rearing and work made them difficult to shed. Snapshots on Favreau's bedroom walls and on her phone show three happy, but out-of-shape, friends at Bechard's wedding.
By the summer of 2012, Poissant and Bechard began going on long power walks together. Favreau never joined them; she had just given birth to her second child, Alyssa. But on the first day of school in September, Poissant called Favreau.
"You know how we were talking about working out?" Poissant asked.
"Yeah," Favreau replied.
"When did you want to do it?"
Jokingly, Favreau said, "How about today?"
Poissant hung up the phone and was at Favreau's house "in like two seconds flat," Favreau recalls.
Favreau weighed 224 pounds in the summer of 2012, Poissant almost forty pounds less. "I was heavy, she was heavy — and she was driven," Favreau says. "She really, really wanted to lose weight."
The two friends would work out as long as two hours at a time as often as six days a week.
Jane Favreau (left) and Ashley Poissant.
Rather than fad diets, the two friends went for the burn. Within months, they had sweated through all manner of workout videos, from Jillian Michaels to Billy Blank's Tae Bo. Poissant would come over during the baby's morning nap, and the two friends would work out as long as two hours at a time as often as six days a week. Pounds melted off. Muscles toned up.
They even mustered the courage to try Shawn T's notorious "Insanity" program.
For months, it had been like a dare, a forbidding mountain. "Just wait till we do Insanity," the two friends would tell each other. And Poissant was always more insistent.
One day, she found an Insanity workout on YouTube, and they went for it. Favreau threw up. Poissant, who could pepper her sense of humor with a dash of mean, couldn't help laughing at her friend. "She definitely was enjoying the moment."
She enjoyed all the moments they were working out, except when her weight loss graph would flatten. "For a while we were losing pounds and pounds per week, but then it leveled off and it was just ounces, or nothing," Favreau says. "She didn't like that."
But Poissant's plateaus never lasted long, and she loved how the new regime made her feel. She'd talk about how much more energy she had, and all the goals she was meeting. And those goals weren't just about fitness. Her world was opening up.
She was born Ashley Reynolds across the border in Quebec, in a bilingual household, and moved to Clinton County when her parents divorced. She worked various jobs, met Matthew Poissant, and fell in love. She was funny and energetic when people got to know her, but that wasn't easy.
"She took a long time trusting people," Favreau says. Eventually, though, she let her guard down, first with Bechard — who worked with Matt Poissant at a local dairy farm — and then with Favreau, who got to know Poissant at McDonald's. And in the last 18 months of Poissant's life, the three hung out all the time, getting together with their husbands and kids, going to movies — Ashley couldn't get enough of the "Twilight" saga — and hitting malls and big box stores 20 miles south in Plattsburgh.
That last year or so, Poissant grew more assertive and ambitious. She had quit McDonald's in 2011 to stay home with kids, occasionally working babysitting jobs. But she wanted more, Favreau says, and in an area with few other career opportunities, she knew she could achieve it at McDonald's, and returned to work in late 2012. With her cross-border background, she spoke fluent French, an asset at a store with so many customers from Quebec. And she was meticulous, sometimes to the point of irking co-workers. "She was by the book," Favreau says. "I liked to joke around at work. She never did."
She set her sights on a management job, and within a few months of rejoining the staff she was named "Employee of the Month." A few months after that, she earned her promotion and, literally, the keys to the store. In mid-May, Favreau took a phone call from her friend.
"You will never guess what I just got today," Poissant said.
"Your keys," replied Favreau.
"How did you know?"
"You've only been waiting for how long?" Favreau said. "And I can hear them jingling."
"But to her it wasn't just a job. It was, I guess, becoming something bigger."
Poissant's friends can't overstate what the promotion meant to her. "She loved everything about it," Favreau says. "People would look at her and be like, ‘You work at McDonald's. What is so great about it?' But to her it wasn't just a job. It was, I guess, becoming something bigger."
Her fitness ambitions grew, too. Favreau's living room couldn't contain them. About the same time she started on the Wii Fit, Poissant began ramping up her activity with Bechard. "Wanna go for a walk?" she'd say. They'd been taking walks for a while. Bechard was a smoker and wanted to exercise to help her quit. The first walk they took, Poissant made them go 7.9 miles. "I was like, are you kidding me?" Bechard says.
By the spring of 2013, walking turned to running. "She bugged me on the phone every day: ‘Are you going to come for a run?'" Bechard says. "And I'm like, Ashley, I just got home from the barn, I am sweating, I am stinky, I have all these things to do. I have this appointment or something going on, you know? And I just didn't say it clearly, I guess, so, it'd be, ‘Enough is enough — I'm just going to go.'"
Over time, they fell into a rhythm, running three or four times a week. As the spring days lengthened, they'd come home from their jobs, help their kids finish homework, fix supper and take off, first through the village of Champlain, then, as their stamina increased, out on the country roads, making sure to be back on sidewalks before dark.
Poissant never gave a thought to entering races, or running formally, Bechard says. It was too expensive, and competing with somebody else wasn't really the point. "Anything that made her sweat, she liked it." Bechard says. "She would say, ‘You wait until the summer and it's 90 degrees. We're going for a run of like five miles, and you're going to be sweating your butt off.'"
In that spirit, Favreau and Poissant kept sweating through the winter and early spring, nearing their target weights. They planned their celebration — a guilt-free steak dinner at Texas Roadhouse in Plattsburgh. With about 15 pounds left to their goal, they started a Les Mills Combat Workout. They'd been at it for six weeks, and by mid-May, Poissant had made it — 129 pounds. Favreau had just a few pounds left, and Poissant insisted that the sirloin and potatoes and cornbread should wait until they'd both earned it.
"We never went," Favreau says. "We should have just gone when she made it ..." She trails off and fights, unsuccessfully, the tears forming beneath her glasses. She looks at the Wii Fit screen, points to an entry on the chart. May 14, exactly a week before her friend passed away. "That was the last workout I did with her."
* * *
The report estimates the driver had 5.2 seconds to swerve to avoid a collision.
For prosecutor Andrew Wylie, the case against Ronald Trombly is obvious. He alleges that a defendant too intoxicated to drive failed to act with proper care to avoid what investigators say was an easily avoidable collision. Wylie grants that Poissant and the Bechards should have been running against traffic. But the State Police Collision Reconstruction Unit (CRU) report, based on measurements at the scene, says that given the lighting at that time of day, Trombly would have been able to see the joggers from a distance of 525 feet to 615 feet, as much as two full football fields.
Factoring in reaction and braking time at 45 miles per hour, the speed Trombly said he was driving, the report estimates the driver had 5.2 seconds to swerve to avoid a collision. Some 300-pound NFL linemen can run 40 yards in that time.
There was no indication of oncoming traffic, Wylie says, or evidence that Trombly drove with his lights on. Trombly never hit his brake hard enough to leave a skid mark on the road, let alone deploy his airbag; the Buick's electronic data recorder, which measures things like sudden pressure against the driver's seatbelt, registered no abrupt change.
The CRU report doesn't mince words. "While clearly in violation of the statute regarding pedestrian use of the highway," it says of the joggers, "they remained sufficiently conspicuous with regard to the sight distance that they could have easily been observed and avoided. The primary cause is the failure of Ronald Trombly to observe the runners on the roadway."
Clinton County has little violent crime. But there is a long history of driving drunk in New York's North Country. Not so long ago, in a tradition called the "River Run," participants would have one drink at each of a series of taverns from Loon Lake in the Adirondacks all the way into Plattsburgh, without the benefit of a designated driver. Wylie highlights DWI enforcement as a centerpiece of his election campaigns, and he and local law enforcement say mechanisms like random checkpoints, as well as changing social attitudes, are succeeding. "Our numbers in the county for DWI arrests have gone down in the county each of the last three years," he says, "and we're very proud of that."
Still, a sizeable number of locals hold a cavalier attitude toward drinking and driving. "I think juries in particular still view DWI as a casual occurrence crime, and it's not looked at as seriously as it should be," Wylie says, adding that some jurors simply won't convict. ‘They just feel like, ‘It could have been me.'"
There's no way of knowing whether those attitudes came into play in Trombly's first grand jury proceeding. But when only 16 of 22 possible jurors showed up for duty that day, prosecutors couldn't convince the required 12 members to vote for an indictment on any of the counts. "Had we had 20 members present at the first grand jury," Wylie says, "then in all likelihood the outcome would have been different."
Wylie's anger was evident after the grand jury came back with no bill. "Justice wasn't served," he said at the time, and vowed to try again. He succeeded, and now Trombly could spend what remains of his life in a state penitentiary.
* * *
Every criminal case has two sides, and Stanley Cohen is adept at telling his. Not a shy man, the Manhattan attorney, a former colleague of radical attorney William Kunstler, has spent his whole life loudly defending what are often, in America, unpopular and sometimes high-profile causes. On his web page, he features a clip of himself jousting with Sean Hannity on FOX over his work with the Hamas government in Palestine, and he's represented a member of Anonymous who hacked into PayPal, and Osama bin Laden's son-in-law. He's currently under indictment in two federal jurisdictions for failing to file income tax returns, charges he denies, and which he says stem from his political activism.
Nobody disputes his skill as a lawyer. "Stanley's been around a long time, and he's an extremely well-respected criminal defense attorney," says Earl Ward, a leading Manhattan defense and civil-rights lawyer who represented Roger Clemens' trainer-turned-steroid-accuser Brian McNamee. "He is a zealous advocate for his clients."
Cohen's résumé doesn't scream "rural," but he's practiced frequently in this corner of the state, working on everything from Native American activism to criminal traffic charges — like the one he's handling for Ronald Trombly.
"I've been doing cases in the North Country for 25 years," he says. "My significant other is from the Mohawk reservation up there."
"It was an accident in which the joggers contributed to it. Their own conduct was if not reckless certainly negligent."
He knows the area, and he's not afraid to speak frankly about local mores — especially as they pertain to his case. "I daresay," he says, "if you were to jail everyone in the North Country, forget about accidents, who has two beers driving around on their way home after work, you'd probably have, I don't know, 20,000 people on a Saturday night in prison."
In an omnibus motion filed on Trombly's behalf, he tells a different story than Wylie. His main point: "It was an accident," he says. "It was an accident in which the joggers contributed to it. Their own conduct was if not reckless certainly negligent."
The motion asked the presiding judge to throw out the case; the court rejected it in January. But it remains a road map for Trombly's defense. From the introduction on through the 31-page filing, Cohen says Poissant and her companions "were recklessly running in the middle of a winding unlit narrow lane after sunset cast against the backdrop of very dense and dark woods."
He insists there's no causal link between alcohol and the collision. The motion claims the runners were lined up "across the road."
The motion also argues at length that giving Wylie "a second bite at the apple," after the first grand jury failed to indict Trombly, violates established law, stating, "... the District Attorney's unhappiness with the outcome cannot be viewed as a lawful basis upon which to seek leave from the Court to re-present the case to a new, second grand jury."
Cohen also claims Wylie's anger with the first grand jury, plus the outpouring of support for Poissant in local media and on the Internet, may have influenced the second grand jury to indict his client.
Beyond that, Trombly's defense will fight hard against admitting the blood alcohol test, arguing that in his dazed state after the crash, the defendant was coerced into going to the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital for a blood draw. "There's a real issue of consent there," Cohen says.
The attorney also questions why, if Trombly committed a crime, police let him go so soon after the crash. "It's interesting that after an investigation that night, they gave him his license and then said, ‘Goodbye,' and he left."
A prison term for Trombly won't serve justice, Cohen says. The defense rejected one plea offer in late January calling for a three-year sentence. "A reasonable resolution in my mind for an 85-year-old man with no criminal record to speak of at all does not include jail. If the DA's office agrees, we'll dispose of the case in a way that the family will be able to get some — there will be some civil consequences."
That means a monetary settlement. "But if not," Cohen says, "we'll go to trial."
You can't predict trials. "One grand jury already bounced this case," Cohen says. "It's conceivable a trial jury could bounce this case, too."
* * *
We designed the places we live with one prime directive: an automobile's inalienable right to travel at least 30 miles per hour.
Participation in fitness and recreation is growing, but America really runs on gasoline and inertia. For much of the past 75 years, we designed the places we live with one prime directive: an automobile's inalienable right to travel at least 30 miles per hour. In upstate New York, that's the minimum possible speed limit, except for school zones. Driver sightlines are the reason suburban homes are set back so far from the street. On roadways, space for cars takes precedence over space for bicycles or people. And in cash-strapped rural areas, locals howl at the idea of spending highway funds to widen paved shoulders for cyclists or pedestrians on places like Perry Mills Road.
Most Americans believe streets are for cars. Period. For generations, people who don't use cars have been suspect, either yuppies with too much time and money on their hands, or poor people unworthy of an American dream machine. Drivers feel entitled to more than the road. A car on a highway feels like its own libertarian utopia, where you're free to shut out the world and listen to hip-hop or classical or Rush Limbaugh and control your own destiny at a high rate of speed. It's your life. You can do what you want. For a long time, you could even be drunk while doing it. Through the 1970s, according to Dr. Barron H. Lerner's 2011 book, "One for the Road," a history of drunk driving, the blood alcohol legal limit in most states was 0.15 percent — about eight drinks on an empty stomach -— some 20 years after Scandinavian countries had set the limit at 0.05 percent.
That freedom isn't free. Victims of drunk driving-or their survivors-live in every community. Nora Montanaro is a longtime lecturer in communications at SUNY Plattsburgh. In early 2006, her oldest son, Albert Montanaro III, was training for the state trooper's fitness test, jogging on a sunny afternoon near his home in Ausable Chasm, about 30 miles south of Champlain. A drunk driver named Steven Baker — with a suspended license and 16 beers in his car — crossed the fog line at high speed and killed Montanaro, 20, who was running more than four feet off the pavement and facing traffic on a long straightaway. Albert Montanaro took every precaution, his mother says, but "a runner or cyclist has no protection when it comes to a moving automobile armed with a drunken driver."
Nora Montanaro now heads the Northern New York Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, turning her tragedy into a crusade. "People treat drunk driving like an accident. They even use the term ‘accident,'" she says. "It's never an accident."
Today, Montanaro counsels survivors. She tells them not to expect too much, from the driver, the justice system, or the media. But she also tells them to do everything they can to preserve the victim's memory.
That's what Bechard and other friends of Ashley Poissant will do in Champlain on April 27 when they hold a 5K run for a woman who never ran one of her own. Proceeds will go toward education funds for Poissant's sons, Logan, Ethan and Owen, three young boys who now know their mother through memories, photographs and a tribute video the family posted on YouTube.
On a "Justice for Ashley" Facebook page, Karen Poissant, Ashley's mother-in-law, posted in November that her 6-year-old grandson Ethan recently asked his aunt Stacey why the people in heaven aren't "able to come down and talk with him. ... Stacey said in heaven there are rules everyone has to follow ... he turned to look up at her and said ... ‘Well I sure hope Mommy is following the rules because she is a New Angel'. ... He wants mommy so bad each day. ..."
On Feb. 1, a few days after Trombly rejected a plea agreement that would have sentenced him to three to nine years, Karen Poissant revealed her frustrations — and those of Ashley's kids.
"I am with these little guys every day," her Facebook post says. "... I know the pain and anger they are going through ..."
Mostly, though, reminders of Ashley Poissant bring sadness. Favreau and Bechard do their best not to bring up the crash when they talk to each other. But it's never far away. It's there as Bechard plans the memorial run, and it's there when Favreau goes to the doctor, and her physicians marvel at how much weight she's lost.
"Did you do it alone?" they ask.
"No, I had a partner," Favreau answers. "But she's not here anymore."
Ashley Poissant isn't here anymore in part because she wanted to be healthy. She did it the easiest, cheapest way she knew how — by running on public roadways. She was new to it, and she probably didn't know all the rules, because this society doesn't bother to make them clear. When Ronald Trombly's Buick hit her, she lost any chance to learn.
And now the McDonald's up by the border has lost a manager, and its Quebecois customers have lost a welcoming host who spoke their language. Jane Favreau and Angie Bechard have lost their friend. Matthew Poissant has lost his wife. And three little boys don't have a mother.
Because even in out-of-the-way places, there's not enough room on the road.