Witness recounts fatal Somerset crash as ‘indescribably horrible’

June 19, 2017
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Firefighters tend to the compact car in which Donna Simboli was a front-seat passenger in this Jan. 3, 2015, photo. Order a Print

The attorney for a Belle Vernon man charged with homicide by vehicle told a Washington County jury the defendant disputes very little about the circumstances surrounding the January 2015 crash that killed a Monongahela resident.

But Gary Gerson, who represents Tyler Buck Belford, 36, said the disagreement centers on whether the facts support a criminal charge.

Donna Simboli, 58, was a passenger in a compact car that was struck by a pickup truck Belford was driving at Brownlee Road and Route 136, Somerset Township, the night of Jan. 3, 2015.

Gerson, in his opening argument, cited forensic analysis that showed the pickup truck was moving at 18 mph “three mph faster than what’s posted in a school zone” through the intersection, which he said was governed by double stop signs on Brownlee Road at Route 136.

But Trooper Todd Stephenson of the state police collision analysis and reconstruction unit told the jury Monday afternoon his examination of the pickup truck’s computerized crash data retrieval system showed Belford never stopped at the Brownlee Road stop signs before entering Route 136. A white stripe, known as a “bar” designates the area where a vehicle must halt.

Driving the vehicle in which Simboli was a passenger was Christopher Weber, formerly of Monongahela, who now lives in Canonsburg. “She was my girlfriend, my lover and best friend,” he told the jury. A bank branch manager, Simboli was the mother of two and also the grandmother of two. Simboli and Weber were shopping in South Strabane Township, where they dined before heading home by way of Route 136 around 7 p.m.

“I thought the truck was going to stop. It was like a coasting stop,” Weber told the jury under direct questioning by Assistant District Attorney Leslie Ridge. “I was in the intersection before I knew (Belford) was coming through it.” He jerked the steering wheel to the left and saw the grill of the truck through the compact car’s passenger-side window.

“It was indescribably horrible,” he testified. “It was like a plow blade on a salt truck in wintertime, just pushing us.”

He repeated the word “horrible” when describing the sound of Simboli’s breathing. She died before she could be evacuated by medical helicopter. Coroner Tim Warco testified Simboli died of trauma, including a lacerated liver, collapsed lung and fractured ribs.

Although it was January, there was no precipitation falling at the time of the crash. The road was wet, but not frozen.

Weber originally told state police he had no idea what happened. He was treated at a Pittsburgh hospital, released the same night, and gave police a statement three days later.

Weber said the driver of the pickup truck seemed to have been coasting. The same term could be applied to the subcompact car, which was traveling downhill at approximately 50 mph, 10 mph over the speed limit and twice the 25 mph advisory sign.

But Stephenson, referring to the Belford pickup truck’s computerized crash data retrieval system, testified, “Five seconds prior to the crash, he never stopped.” Later, the accident reconstruction expert testified, “Mr. Belford stops at the sign and this crash never happens and Ms. Simboli is likely alive today.”

Another sign on Brownlee at Route 136 notes “cross traffic does not stop.” The view from a pickup truck to Route 136 eastbound is unobstructed, the accident reconstruction specialist testified, also telling the jury the Simboli vehicle had the right of way.

Belford, who was on his way to check natural gas well equipment as part of his job, intends to testify, according to Gerson. Jurors were issued headsets before they watched a video of Belford giving a statement to police at the former Murtland Avenue barracks the night of the crash.

The jury of six women and eight men, including two alternates, was scheduled to resume hearing testimony Tuesday morning. The judge asked any jurors who normally travel that stretch of Route 136 to avoid the Brownlee Road intersection in accordance with his instructions that they not conduct any research outside the courtroom.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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