Witness says Bakdash saw victims and 'hit the gas'

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 12:05 AM

A passenger in Timothy Bakdash's car the night he mowed down three U students testified in his murder trial Monday.

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Defense attorney Joe Tamburino. During opening arguments, he said that Bakdash only meant to frighten the men on the street.

Photo: Jules Ameel, Star Tribune

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Jaw clenched and knuckles white, Tim Bakdash was angry as he pulled out of a Dinkytown parking lot at 2 a.m. last April.

When he spotted the men who had picked a fight with him only moments before, he didn't say anything, a passenger in his car testified Monday.

Instead, "He looked at the guys and he hit the gas," Matthew Damman said.

Damman, who came forward six months after the crash, took the stand as the prosecution's star witness in Bakdash's trial for first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder, which opened Monday in Hennepin County District Court.

In a case that shook the University of Minnesota, Bakdash is accused of running down a group of U students walking home, killing promising economics major Benjamin Van Handel and injuring two others. The students' families packed an overflowing courtroom, at times stifling sobs during testimony of Van Handel's fatal injuries.

Under questioning by Assistant County Attorney Christina Warren, Damman told the jury that Bakdash, amped up after at least nine drinks and a few shots at the Library Bar, wanted to fight two men who taunted him. Damman coaxed his friend into the car, but as soon as they left, Damman said he flew backward in the passenger's seat as his friend spotted them, turned the wrong way into a one-way street and punched the gas. "No! No! No!" Damman testified that he screamed as Bakdash drove onto the sidewalk before the bodies hit the windshield. Terrified, Damman testified, he asked Bakdash why he'd done it.

"They deserved it," Bakdash said, according to Damman.

Bakdash, 29, is charged with 12 felony counts stemming from the April 15 crash that killed Van Handel, 23, of Appleton, Wis., and severely injured Katelynn Hanson and Sarah Bagley, who were both 21 at the time.

The three victims were not involved with the group Bakdash allegedly aimed for when he drove up onto the sidewalk and struck the students.

Prosecutors say mistaken identity is irrelevant because Bakdash had an intent to kill.

Bakdash, who fled the scene, was arrested five days later, hours after Van Handel was removed from life support.

'Go get them'

During opening arguments, defense attorney Joe Tamburino said Bakdash, who was drunk and high with a possible blood alcohol level as high as .30, was goaded by Damman to "go get them" and only meant to frighten the men walking along the street.

Tamburino said Bakdash "just freaked" when he instead saw a young woman bounce off the hood of his car. He punched the gas and didn't know what happened next.

Bakdash never knew he struck Van Handel, Tamburino told the jury, and when he heard a young man was seriously injured, thought it was from a different accident.

Tamburino is arguing that Bakdash is not guilty of first-degree murder or attempted murder because he didn't intend to kill Van Handel or anyone else. Bakdash likely will testify on his own behalf this week.

Bakdash's mother, Diane Bakdash, was initially accused of helping him hide the car, but prosecutors later dropped the charges against her.

Coming clean

Under questioning, Damman, 29, admitted that he jumped out of the car after the crash and never told anyone, including police, that he was in the passenger seat.

He denied involvement when he was repeatedly approached by a private investigator for the defense but came clean with Minneapolis police detectives last October. Damman testified that he lied because he was afraid he could be implicated in the deaths. On the stand, Damman, the father of a young son, broke down when he admitted another reason he finally told the truth.

"Because of what happened," he whispered. "That kid passed away."

During cross-examination, Tamburino chipped away at inconsistencies in Damman's testimony, as well as the fact that he initially lied to police and only told the truth when he learned he wouldn't get into trouble.

The reason he was afraid, Tamburino said, "is you told Mr. Bakdash to get those people." "Incorrect," Damman said.

911 call replayed

Bagley and Hanson testified they were walking home with student Joseph Bailin when they heard the distinct revving of an engine.

The next both knew, they were lying injured in the street.

Leslie Falk testified she was out with Van Handel that night and he was walking her home when she heard an engine rev behind them.

She saw parking lights and stepped out of the way, but said it was too late for Van Handel to move.

In tears, she described seeing the car throw Van Handel on the hood until he flew headfirst into a telephone pole and landed unconscious in the street.

She wiped her eyes as prosecutors played a 911 call of her begging for help, screaming "Oh my God! Hurry, please!"

Falk told a jury that the memories of that night were too much to bear. She remains at the U but moved to St. Paul because she can no longer be in the neighborhood. She had asked Van Handel to join her that night, and he'd become a close friend in recent weeks.

Losing him wasn't all that affected her. "I was right next to him," she testified. "There is a possibility that could have been me, too."

Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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