Testimony begins in Rochester bus trial

Alyssa Shepherd

It was an emotional first day in the jury trial of Alyssa Shepherd, the driver who hit four children, killing three of them, in Fulton County on Oct. 30, 2018.

“I realized my kids were gone,” testified Brittany Ingle, mother of the three children who died that morning.

The 12-person jury and two alternates were shown graphic crime scene photos, as well as an autopsy photo, and heard the distressing 911 call made the day of the tragedy. They also watched several witnesses break into tears, including the four victims’ family members.

Shepherd faces three counts of reckless homicide, a Level 5 felony; one count of criminal recklessness, a Level 6 felony; and one Class A misdemeanor count of passing a school bus with its stop arm extended, causing bodily injury.

Proceedings began shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday, with Fulton County Superior Court Judge Greg Heller reading instructions to the jurors. Opening statements from both the state and defense followed.

“This is case is straight forward,” Fulton County Prosecutor Mike Marrs told the jury. “It comes down to a very simple thing — the defendant’s reckless action.”

He described the morning of the incident and how the children were crossing the southbound lane of Indiana 25 to board their school bus when they were struck by a southbound truck driven by Shepherd.

He said she passed a “watch for school bus” sign, saw an object in the road and didn’t slow down.

The children, students at Mentone Elementary School and Tippecanoe Valley Middle School, were boarding their school bus, driven by Robert Reid, around 7:10 a.m. at River Park Properties, formerly Meiser’s Trailer Court, at 4684 N. Ind. 25, when they were struck.

Twin boys, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, and their older sister, Alivia Stahl, were killed.

“It’s plain, it’s a freaking bus,” Marrs said. “Everyone else sees it. She stays on the gas and keeps on going.” He stated she had about 15 seconds to react and didn’t.

Defense attorney David Newman told the jury it was an unusual morning for Shepherd, who was on her way back to Rochester after dropping her husband at work in Talma — something she didn’t normally do. Her two young children and her younger brother also were in the truck.

Newman told jurors Shepherd couldn’t tell it was a bus she was passing, adding it could have been a wide load vehicle and that it’s common for tractors to be in the area.

“She applied her breaks,” Newman said. “Unfortunately, it was too late to stop.”

After hitting the children, he described Shepherd as confused, panicked and hysterical, saying she tried to call 911 but was unable to get through. He said she then directly called a county dispatcher she knows and cooperated with authorities by agreeing to provide blood samples and turning over her cellphone and its passcode.

“This was a tragic accident, there’s no denying that,” Newman said.

He said the case has a unique legal perspective because both sides agree to a set of facts but disagree on what those facts shows.

“She was negligent, not reckless,” Newman said.

Brittany Ingle, the mother of Alivia, Mason and Xzavier, was the first of seven people to testify before the afternoon break. She remained emotionally strong until describing how she recognized it was her children who had been hit.

She said Xzavier was laying on the roadway “almost as if he was taking a nap.”

“I noticed it was him by the backpack,” she said, beginning to cry. “Mason was next to him.”

She said she was trying to feel for pulses when she heard someone call out, “There’s two more over here.”

She then ran to her daughter, who was wearing her favorite outfit on the morning of the tragedy.

“I just remember telling her I love her and to hold on,” Ingle said.

She recalled seeing her boys getting covered by a sheet and how she ripped it off, saying she felt like responding medics “didn’t even try.”

Another sheet was then placed over her daughter.

She said she did not see Shepherd or speak to her at the scene.

Shepherd’s attorneys had no questions for Ingle.

Fulton County Sheriff’s Detective Travis Heishman, was one of the first policemen to arrive at the scene. He briefly testified how he took photos, both on the ground and with an aerial drone. Those photos were shown to jurors later in the day.

Maggie Harding, who was driving behind Shepherd at the time of the incident, testified she was driving her younger brother to school and was about a car length behind a Toyota truck. She described the morning as “kinda light, kinda dark” but later clarified headlights were still required.

She said it didn’t take her very long to realize there was a school bus up ahead and began to slow. Familiar with the area, she said she was not surprised to see a bus there.

She, too, started to cry when recalling the tragic event.

“I saw the truck hit the kids,” she said, adding the driver in front of her didn’t slow down. “I sat there while everything happened.”

She described seeing the buses’ lights and stop arm extended before the collision.

Valley buses are now required to enter the mobile home park when picking up children. That change came the day after the tragedy. Brush was also cut back and additional signage was installed in the area.

Hobart Wheeler, who was driving behind the bus during the incident, also testified. He was making deliveries in a box truck that morning.

“I could hear kids laughing and talking,” he said of coming to a stop behind the bus. He said he saw the headlights of a vehicle not slowing down as the children began crossing the road to board the bus.

He estimated the vehicle was traveling 60 mph and the driver didn’t break during impact.

“This happened all within 3 seconds,” he said. “I was nervous. It was going so fast.”

After seeing the vehicle strike the childen, Wheeler said, he said he jumped out of his vehicle and approached the truck. He described thinking it was a drunk driver.

“I thought it was a guy,” he said, recalling he was angry as he approached the truck.

He said Shepherd got out of the truck, asking what she hit.

“You just ran over kids. You probably killed them all,” he told her.

Wheeler described Shepherd as “nonchalant” as she got back into the truck.

Lowe was called to testify after Wheeler and entered the courtroom with a walker. He worked his way into the stand and described the tragedy through his eyes.

That morning, he woke up at 5:30 a.m., got ready and stood outside waiting for the bus. He stood alone, not wanting to talk with anyone else that morning. He said he could see the buses’ flashing light approaching.

After being waved across, he saw the headlights of a vehicle nearing.

“I was scared to do anything,” he said, remembering he had only a couple of seconds to decide. “I decided to go forward.”

He said he remembers waking up and rolling himself over after being struck. He struggled to breath as he laid in a ditch near a fence line.

He was airlifted in critical condition to Parkview Memorial Hospital in Fort Wayne, where he spent 30 days. He’s had 21 surgeries since, including knee replacement about three weeks ago.

He said he’s going through physical therapy now, working to get more motion in his leg.

The 911 call made by Joanna Kegley was played to jurors before the afternoon break. The call was taken by Fulton County dispatcher Krista Sutton, who also testified.

After reconvening, jurors were shown photos from the wreck, many of which showed the deceased children covered by sheets, some of which didn’t. The jury was also shown a single photo of Alivia from her autopsy.

Aerial photos captured by the drone, as well as an Indiana State Police helicopter, also were shown to the jury, as were photos of the truck, which had extensive front-end damage and several deployed airbags.

The first day of the trial concluded with testimony by Indiana State Police crime scene investigators Lamar Helmuth and Jason Page. In addition to their investigations, the two also attempted to create a video representation of what Shepherd would have seen the morning of the incident.

Both videos were shot at night to simulate the same darkness. The bus from the incident was used in both videos, as well as the same model of Toyota Tacoma that she was driving. Page told jurors his video was more accurate to what would have been seen due to adjustments made for light metering. He said he performed several tests to make sure the video captured was as close to what he could see while driving the same stretch of road.

In answering questions from the defense, he noted there was no vehicle behind him or the school bus while capturing the video.

The first day of the trial was concluded shortly after 3 p.m. The state will continue its case at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

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