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Witness: Brakes were worn

The state piles up evidence against driver Shaun McElrath, asserting that her speeding, bad brakes and drinking led to her deadly wreck.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


INVERNESS -- Mike Snyder put on gloves, reached into a cardboard box, lifted a grimy auto part and showed it to the jury. The prosecutor then asked him a simple question:

Are brakes supposed to look that way?

"No, sir, they are not," Snyder replied.

The brakes came from the 1978 Oldsmobile that Shaun McElrath drove on Feb. 23, 2000. Prosecutors said the front brakes failed, contributing to a fatal accident that McElrath is accused of causing.

But that wasn't the only cause: The state also said McElrath was drinking Wild Turkey whiskey that night to the point she was legally impaired.

Snyder's testimony, and demonstration, came during Day 3 of McElrath's trial. She faces from 34 years to life in prison if found guilty of three counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter and one count of driving under the influence causing serious bodily harm.

Snyder is a mechanic and auxiliary deputy at the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. After the wreck, he removed the brakes and brake assemblies and examined them.

Responding to questions from prosecutor Richard Buxman, Snyder told the jury Thursday that the brakes showed classic signs of wear. He explained how brakes work and how he measured the extent to which McElrath's had deteriorated.

"It has been that way for quite some time," Snyder said. "Weeks, months."

Prosecutors said McElrath, now 34, drove through a stop sign at Dawson Drive and slammed into a vehicle that was southbound on Croft Avenue. Inside that car were four people returning from Bible study at their church.

The driver, Israel Rodriguez, survived. He was the prosecution's first witness against McElrath. The three others -- Rodriguez's wife, Nelia, and their friends, Ruben Sierra and his wife, Sylvia Padro -- all died.

In opening statements, defense lawyer Jim Cummins said the front and back brakes on his client's car failed the night of the accident. He also said that, although McElrath had been drinking, she was not legally impaired.

Prosecutors have accused McElrath of negligently maintaining the vehicle and of being impaired when she later drove it.

Another sheriff's deputy, Mike Kanter, told the jury Thursday how he studied the crash scene and determined that McElrath was driving about 48 mph, plus or minus 5 mph. The speed limit on Dawson is 25 mph.

Cummins questioned the deputy's methods during his cross-examination.

The state is expected to call its final witness today, a technician from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The defense then will have a chance to present its case.

Recent coverage

Auto wreck claims a third life (February 29, 2000)

Kindness of accident victims is recalled (February 26, 2000)

Driver charged in wreck that claimed two lives (February 25, 2000)

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