After two years and four months of silence, a slumped and weeping Clifford Helm finally spoke Wednesday about the accident he caused, killing five Mennonite children on Highway 395 north of Spokane.
Helm, 58, took the stand and described his 37-year marriage to his wife, Sandy, how he’d built successful businesses that he sold in middle age so he could slow down, and how he was enjoying having more time with his six grown children and seven grandchildren.
“Before the accident, how was your life?” his attorney Carl Oreskovich asked.
“I had a wonderful life,” a sobbing Helm said. “This accident has been absolutely horrible.”
He denied being suicidal at the time of the accident. Investigators had speculated that could have been one cause of the Nov. 1, 2005, crash.
Jeffrey and Carolyn Schrock, the parents of the dead children, were in the courtroom with friends and relatives to listen to Helm’s testimony. Helm’s family was there as well.
Helm told the jury he had a bad cough the weekend before the accident. He said he didn’t have a family doctor and hadn’t sought medical attention for the persistent cough.
“I never thought it was anything to bother about,” Helm said.
Medical experts for the defense have testified Helm suffered a “cough syncopy” just before the accident, a condition that caused him to faint and lose control of his truck.
Prosecutors who’ve charged Helm with five counts of vehicular homicide say he was fumbling for his cell phone and driving erratically.
The cough got so bad in November 2005 that Helm said he had to push on his throat and spit to remove the congestion.
Helm said he remembers the day of the accident, including a trip with his wife to have lunch and to pick up his repaired truck. He remembers waving at Sandy Helm as the couple headed home in separate vehicles, then rolling his window down to cough and spit. He remembers setting the cruise control on his pickup at 60 mph after the Wandermere bridge as he headed north.
That’s when his memories stop – one to two miles from the accident.
“Do you have any recollection of what caused you to go off the road?” Oreskovich asked.
“I have no recollection except that I may have blacked out,” he said, sighing heavily.
Some spectators in Superior Court Judge Michael Price’s courtroom cried as Helm spoke, especially when he described going to Jeffrey Schrock’s hospital room at Sacred Heart Medical Center, where both men were recuperating after the accident. Helm said he told Schrock he was sorry. He also attended the children’s funeral.
“I tried not to be a nuisance but to get with them as much as I could,” he said through tears.
But under cross-examination, Helm startled some spectators when he accused Sacred Heart of giving him worse care after the accident than Schrock received.
Deputy prosecutor Michael Nelson triggered the comment when he asked Helm whether he’d sought medication for his cough while at Sacred Heart. He said he’d asked repeatedly for medication and it wasn’t provided.
“We were on the same floor as the Schrock family. I just don’t think we got taken care of as well,” Helm said.
Later in the day, prosecutors tried to bring a Sacred Heart nurse to rebut Helm’s charge that his cough wasn’t treated, but Price barred the proposed testimony after objections by Helm’s lawyers.
Nelson also pressed Helm on when he came to understand his cough might have contributed to the fatal accident. Helm cited a second episode, Nov. 18, 2005, when he coughed at home, fainted and crashed to the floor.
“After I visited the doctor on the 18th, I knew what happened and thought it was the answer to my problem,” Helm said.
Under questioning by Oreskovich, Helm said he was advised not to drive again for six months after the Nov. 18 fainting spell.
“How many months was it before you drove again?” Oreskovich asked.
“Ten or 11,” Helm replied.
Nelson also challenged Helm’s statement that the accident has ruined his life, pressing him about hunting and other trips he’s taken recently. Helm said he’s hunted once and has been to Hawaii once since the accident.
“I felt I had the world on my shoulders,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, a forensic engineering expert hired by the defense described Helm’s fatal trajectory. As Helm’s Ford pickup careened twice across the median of Highway 395, Edward Pool said it behaved like a “driverless vehicle” because Helm was so impaired he was unable to brake, steer or take the truck out of cruise control.
“Typically, a driver will hit the brakes, correct the steering, even overcorrect. There’s no evidence here of any steering input,” Pool said.
If Helm had simply tapped the brakes when he first drifted off the highway from the northbound lane, that would have disengaged the cruise control and the truck would have “stopped or nearly stopped” before it entered the southbound lanes going in the wrong direction, Pool said. Instead, the cruise control continued to push the truck uphill, he added.
The defense rested its case late Wednesday. Closing arguments are scheduled for 10 a.m. today.