Defense steers suspicion from Franco to missing boyfriend

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2008 - 8:15 PM

"Things aren't always as they seem," one lawyer said, before calling witnesses about her boyfriend and the bus crash.

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Francisco Sangabriel Mendoza

WILLMAR, MINN. - For two days, a stream of prosecution witnesses seemed to leave little room for disputing the state's contention that Olga Franco was driving the minivan that hit the Cottonwood school bus in a deadly Feb. 19 crash.

But defense attorneys warned jurors Monday: "Things aren't always as they seem."

Defense attorney Manuel Guerrero used the phrase twice in his opening statement after Lyon County Attorney Rick Maes rested the state's case.

Guerrero began making the case that Franco's boyfriend, Francisco Sangabriel Mendoza, was actually the one driving and fled the scene after the accident.

He said the impact of the crash threw Mendoza out of the minivan and Franco partway into the driver's seat, where she then pulled herself up using the steering wheel.

Responders to the crash found Franco, a 24-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, in the driver's seat, her right foot wedged under a crumpled dashboard near the accelerator, according to testimony last week.

Prosecutors have charged Franco with criminal vehicular homicide for the deaths of four children on the bus, along with 17 counts of criminal vehicular injury. She has also been charged with running a stop sign, giving authorities a false name and driving without a license.

In his opening statement, Guerrero reminded jurors that witnesses testified about seeing a man outside the passenger's side of the van minutes after the crash, acting agitated. He brought two defense witnesses to the stand Monday who also testified about seeing someone flee on foot, heading west on County Road 24.

Another witness, Keryn Vigil of Minneota, testified through an interpreter that he was traveling that road about 3:30 p.m. to work the second shift at the Cottonwood cabinet shop on the day of the crash. He saw Mendoza jogging in the cold, he said, and stopped to offer help. Mendoza, a co-worker whom he knew as Samuel, got in the back seat of his SUV immediately, Vigil said, and asked for a ride to Minneota.

Vigil said he had stopped at Mendoza's home in a Minneota trailer court days earlier to try to talk about religion and stopped to help Mendoza out of the cold as part of his Christian duty.

Vigil said Mendoza asked for a ride to Willmar, but Vigil refused because he didn't want to miss work. Mendoza didn't have a key to his trailer in Minneota, and Vigil didn't want to abandon him in the cold, he testified, so he offered to let Mendoza stay at his house and took Mendoza to Willmar the next morning. He said he could hear that Mendoza was in pain.

It wasn't until the day after the crash that he heard Mendoza was involved, he said. He went to authorities days later, after talking with a church leader.

Mendoza is now believed to be in Mexico. .

Guerrero, who is working with two other lawyers, told jurors that they will hear testimony from a biomechanical engineer about how the van spun after impact to throw its two occupants sideways. That testimony will dispute a state crash reconstructionist's testimony from last week, saying they would have been propelled forward, not sideways.

The defense appeared to struggle Monday afternoon, when counselor Salvador Cruz took the stand. Cruz, who began counseling Franco in late May to address depression and physical and mental abuse, said Franco's boyfriend had been jealous and abusive.

But when Guerrero asked Cruz questions about Franco's state of mind and her fears of her boyfriend, Maes consistently objected and Cruz wasn't allowed to answer. The defense stopped questioning, and the court recessed the trial in mid-afternoon.

Franco, whom immigration officials say is in the country illegally, contends her boyfriend took off after the crash because he didn't want to be deported to Mexico. She contends he threatened her first, saying if she told anyone, her life would be at risk. Both face federal false identity charges.

Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning, and the case could be wrapped up this week. Guerrero told jurors that defense attorneys weren't yet sure whether Franco would take the stand.

The courtroom on Monday contained more than a dozen family and friends of those affected by the crash.

Marty Javens, whose sons Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13, died in the crash, said it was difficult to listen to the defense.

"It's a pretty fantastic story, I think," he said of the defense theory. "They're blowing smoke." He said he came to the courthouse to support all the families involved and see justice done.

"It's not going to make any difference," he said. "The boys can't come back."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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