Sheffield — A Sheffield man whose truck was involved in a fatal crash in a downtown crosswalk has pleaded not guilty to causing the death of a beloved town resident.
At an arraignment June 19, Edward “Carl” Liebenow, 33, pleaded not guilty at Southern Berkshire District Court to motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation. Liebenow will also face a civil charge of failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The case was continued to Monday, July 17, when a pretrial hearing will be held. Meanwhile, Liebenow remains free.
Police say Liebenow was driving southbound on Main Street (Route 7) in Sheffield at about 6:15 p.m. on April 24 in his grey 2011 Chevrolet Silverado PK pick-up truck when he struck 78-year-old Gillian Seidl, also of Sheffield. Seidl was pronounced dead at the scene.
Responding Sheffield police officers did not perform a field sobriety test because Liebenow showed no signs of intoxication and police do not think Liebenow was distracted by technology. Indeed, court documents say he did not have a cell phone to call his wife, Victoria, after the accident and had to be brought to the police station to make the call.
Charges were slow to be brought against Liebenow because toxicology tests take weeks to complete and the Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction team needed time to complete its investigation.
Liebenow’s driver’s license was suspended the day after the crash when he was interviewed by two state troopers at the Sheffield police station. Responding Sheffield Officer Jake Gonska eventually filed a criminal complaint against Liebenow on May 17.
Court documents show that Gonska and Officer Brian Fahey arrived on the scene at the Route 7 crosswalk near the Bushnell-Sage Library, only a few hundred yards north of the police station, at 6:17 p.m., about two minutes after the incident was reported.
They found Liebenow’s truck parked in the southbound lane just south of the marked crosswalk. There were also Dunkin’ Donuts coffee boxes, napkins, straws, cream packets and pastries strewn about the road. Seidl had been delivering refreshments to a reception for an art exhibit that evening.
Gonska could see the victim lying supine in the road as two females performed CPR on her in advance of the arrival of the Southern Berkshire Volunteer Ambulance Squad and officers from the Great Barrington Police Department, who had been summoned for back-up, according to Gonska’s complaint.
After the arrival of support, Gonska commenced his investigation and interviewed witnesses, including Susan McVeety, a friend of Seidl’s and an eyewitness who saw her being struck in the middle of the southbound lane by Liebenow’s truck.
Liebenow was standing next to his truck, which had moderate damage. He appeared “pale in color and distraught,” Gonska said. Liebenow, who had been traveling with his 10-year-old son in the vehicle, told Gonska he had just visited Gulotta’s, the gas station and convenience store in the center of town, to buy cigarettes and soft drinks. Neither Liebenow nor his son was injured.
According to the complaint, “Liebenow was not sure what happened, suggesting that [there was] possibly sunglare at the time … [and] that he did not see the victim until he struck her.” The glare started at about the time Liebenow drove past the Verizon building, he told Gonska.
Gonska became concerned that the “well being” of Liebenow’s son was being compromised by “remaining on the scene.” So both the son and Liebenow were placed in the back seat of a police cruiser far away from the scene. Liebenow and his son were interviewed the next day.
Four days after the accident, Gonska performed an experiment at approximately the same time of day as the crash. The weather conditions on that day were similar: temperatures were in the 60s, skies were sunny and the roads were dry at the time of the crash. So Gonska climbed into the police cruiser, a Ford Expedition, and retraced Liebenow’s route to see if his experience was the same as Liebenow’s.
“I did not observe any sun glare or atmospheric conditions that would have caused me to shield my eyes, taking my attention away from what would be the crosswalk in front of me,” Gonksa said, adding that a dashcam documented his findings.
Approximately three weeks later — and the day after the State Police accident reconstruction team completed its site visit — Gonska filed the criminal complaint against Liebenow, who was assigned a public defender, Great Barrington attorney Peter J. Brewer.
A native of Scotland, Seidl was well known in Sheffield and in Berkshire County. She was a member of the town’s cultural council and co-founder with Joan Ackermann of Mixed Company, Berkshire County’s oldest year-round theater.
Liebenow’s pretrial hearing will be held at 9 a.m. on Monday, July 17, at Southern Berkshire District Court in Great Barrington. According to state law, if a defendant is convicted of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, it is punishable by a minimum of 30 days or a maximum of two and half years in jail, or a fine ranging from $300 to $3,000, or both.