Five Questions – Part 5

Parts of this post were used in Aggravated. This is the fifth post of five questions/items that were part of a chapter in Aggravated. In that chapter I answered and/or explained all five in just a few paragraphs, so these are just more detailed breakdowns of the reasoning behind those answers. If you’ve already read the book you can just skip these posts unless you want the extra detail. If you missed the earlier posts and want to read them in order, start with, When Was the Rodeo? Here’s the last item.

About the Truck

Why is This Item Important? The viability of Hanna’s story was usually contingent on certain conditions (too dark to see, quiet, cold, etc.). The very structure of the truck makes some of her assertions highly unlikely.

This is from Tom’s interview. He asked Hanna what kind of truck it was. She said, “Uh, I don’t know. It’s a little like an S-10-type truck. Itty bitty. It’s tan-colored. [pause] I don’t know …what it …what the …I don’t know. I think it’s [3-second pause] …it’s really …it’s kind of an older model truck. I don’t …I don’t know.” He asked if it was a standard or an automatic. She said, “It is… Oh, my gosh, let me think [5-second pause – sigh] …no, that’s the other truck. Um… [4-second pause] I think it’s a standard.” Prompting her, he asked if there was a gearshift on the column or the floor. She said, “On the floor.” He asked her where she was sitting. She said, “In the middle.” He asked her if she straddled the floor shift. She said, “Yes.”

[It was small, “Itty bitty,” had a standard shift on the floor that Hanna said she straddled.]

In Trial #1, she added some more detail, of course, and seemed much more practiced in the telling. Ross asked her to describe the truck. She said, “It was a small S-10 size, an older model. I think it was a Toyota [it wasn’t]. It was real small. It was tan.” He asked her if she had seen the truck before. She said, “Yes. It belonged to a neighbor of his that had passed away.” Ross asked how many seats it had inside. She said, “Just a regular bench seat. It just seated three — well, supposed to seat three.” Ross asked if Steve was driving. Hanna said, “Yes.” And he asked where she and Rhonda were sitting. Hanna said, “I was sitting in the middle and Rhonda was beside the door.”

[Was Hanna trying to imply that Steve had stolen a dead man’s truck? I think she was, and I find that reprehensible. There’s more about her inference farther down the page.]

Rhonda was also asked about the truck. She described it as “a small truck with a bench seat all the way across.” He asked her where she sat. She said, “I sat on the passenger side.” He asked where Hanna sat. Rhonda said, “In the middle.”

[Actually, to describe the truck as just small doesn’t do it justice. It’s tiny.]

In Trial #2, Hanna doubled down on her dead-man accusation, maybe with some assistance from Ross. She answered, “Yes,” when he asked if she had ever seen the truck before. Then he asked, “Whose was it, do you know?” She said, “That trailer house I had spoken of earlier that I thought was his, whenever I had first gone out there, it actually belonged to his neighbor, and that is whose truck it belonged to, but he had passed away, died from cancer.” Ross didn’t ask anything else, but just let the pseudo-accusation hang in the air for the jury to think about. He moved back to a description of the truck, asking her, “And was this truck an extended cab where it had two seats in it?” She said, “No. It was a single-cab, bench seat.”

[In Trial #1, Hanna volunteered that the truck belonged to a dead man. In Trial #2, she waited for Ross to ask her whose truck it was before she said it. Knowing what Hanna had insinuated in the first trial, did Ross bring this up again to discredit Steve when he couldn’t dispute it (because he didn’t testify in Trial #2)?]

Doug Sanford tried to repair the damage by having her verify her statement about Steve and the truck and the deceased neighbor, but she said, “I’m not quite sure if he actually owned it or not. I just know he ended up with it in his possession. I don’t know. I don’t know the arrangements,” which still let the possibility of theft linger. Sanford asked her if she sat between Steve and Rhonda. She said, “Yes, sir.” He also asked her if the truck had a standard transmission. She agreed that it did, so he asked if she had straddled the stick shift. She said, “I don’t remember, sir. I’m sorry.”

[Hanna stuck to her potential theft from a dead man claim, and also said she didn’t remember if she had straddled the stick, despite what she told Tom. Let’s see what Rhonda said about it.]

Sanford asked Rhonda whether she remembered if Hanna had both legs on one side of the gearshift or not. Rhonda replied with “Huh-huh.”

[“Huh-huh” is apparently court-reporter-speak for “No.” Hanna told Tom she straddled the gearshift, but told the jury she didn’t remember. Rhonda, conveniently, didn’t remember either.]

It was too late, obviously, but I got a chance to ask Steve about this in 2016. I said, “Hanna said she didn’t know where you got the truck, but she thought it belonged to a neighbor of yours who died.” Steve said, “Well, it did belong to a neighbor. It belonged to Bob, my best friend.” I asked him who Bob was. He said, “Bob Laine. Bob is actually the person who talked me into going to work for the city and changing careers, and doing water and wastewater. Linsey and Robin and me and Bob have been best friends for many, many years. They considered Marri their adopted grandchild. In fact he said her right leg was his and her left leg was ours. He even hung their old Bloomingdale’s card over her crib when she was a baby. You know, teach her how to shop. [We both laughed] We were just very, very close, and after Bob died, the truck sat over there and sat over there, and Linsey didn’t have anything to do with it, and we worked some kind of deal with her. I don’t remember how much I paid her for it, but it didn’t matter. We just took care of each other. We were family, and I ended up with the truck through that. I had a truck almost exactly …well, it was the exact same truck, but it was a different …one was a Ford Courier and the other one was a Mazda, and they’re actually the same truck.”

[Steve owned a Mazda B-series truck, and Bob owned a Ford Courier. They were identical trucks, sold under different brands. The truck that night was the Ford Courier, and it did originally belong to Steve’s friend, Bob, but Steve didn’t steal it, he bought it from Bob’s widow, Linsey. Not that the jury would know that when they went in to deliberate. Steve didn’t testify in that trial, but no one asked Beau or Marri or Robin about it either. Dirty pool, in my opinion.]

I wanted to know more about the truck (particularly about its size), so I contacted Zeke Yewdall, who is a collector of Ford Couriers. I sent him a picture of the truck, and asked for some details, especially about the width of the bench seat. Here’s the picture I sent him.

The Ford Courier Pickup
The Ford Courier Pickup

Zeke said, “That looks like a 1978 through 1982 Courier. A standard model, not the fancier XLT. It is a very small truck — just getting three people in there at all is fairly squished.” The Courier had a 61.4 inch truck bed, so the seat width had to be smaller than that. Even assuming extremely thin doors, the seat was likely only 54 inches wide, so each person would have no more than 18 inches on which to place their posteriors. Add shoulder width and elbow room, and I would think it would be nearly impossible to not bump into your neighbor, knock elbows, or touch them in some way. A miniscule truck, with a narrow seat. The average coach seat on most airlines is between 17” and 18” wide, so that should give you an idea how cramped it was for three people in the Courier. I don’t know any way to put this delicately; but, in 2003, Steve was 5’ 11” and weighed 180 pounds, and Hanna was about 5’ 4” and weighed around 140. I don’t know Rhonda’s height or weight, but she has been described to me as being about Hanna’s size. We aren’t talking about three tiny passengers.

[It was a very small, early-1980’s truck. None of the passengers were petite, but the truck was.]

Analysis: When Hanna and Rhonda were asked about the size of the truck they used words like “tiny,” “itty bitty,” and “small.” It had a single bench seat (no bucket seats or consoles), and a standard transmission with a stick shift on the floor. At the water tower, Steve opened the gate and drove straight in, so when they started to leave, the truck was facing away from the road, on the right side of the tower. To get on the road again and head east, Steve had to either execute a three-point turn to face toward the street, or had to back up onto the road. Both maneuvers would have required him to use reverse gear. The stick shift was in what’s known as an H-pattern four-on-the-floor. If you’re unfamiliar with standard transmissions, here’s a diagram.

Gear Shift Pattern
Gear Shift Pattern

Steve had to push the gearshift knob to the right from the central (neutral) position, then pull it toward the seat to get it into reverse. Then he had to push it forward, then all the way to the left, and then straight forward again to put it into first gear. Anyone who has driven cars or trucks with small engines and standard transmissions knows, that once they were moving forward again, Steve would have gone through the first three gears fairly quickly, probably in less than a minute, and would have then stayed in fourth until the car slowed appreciably or reached massive hills or hairpin turns (neither of which exist on that route).

When Doug Sanford asked Hanna, in Trial #2, whether she straddled the gearshift or not. She said, “I don’t remember,” but when Tom asked her the same question a few months before, she had said, “Yes.” Did she lie to Sanford because she knew it would help Steve’s case if her leg had been in the way when he shifted gears, or did she lie to Tom to throw him some poisoned red meat? In Trial #1, Rhonda said that Steve “would put his hand on her knee and around her at times,” but Hanna said, “most of the time, he kept his right hand on the gearshift.” Steve’s right hand would have been near Hanna’s knees whenever he shifted gears, whether she was straddling the gearshift or not.

When she brought up the subject of where Steve got the truck, she was employing a technique politicians sometimes use against their opponents, leak a piece of false or unflattering information, and then distance themselves from it. Several times in Tom’s interview, Hanna attempted to spread rumors about Steve, or feed him incorrect information, but I believe that suggesting Steve might have stolen property from a dead person was especially low. The truck had originally belonged to his friend Bob Laine, but Steve bought it from Bob’s wife, Linsey, after Bob died. By saying it “actually” belonged to his neighbor, did Hanna commit perjury?

Conclusion: It was a small truck, with one bench seat, and it was providing conveyance for three people, all of whom were confined to the specific locations required by their seat belts. None of these three could be described as wafer thin, so—yes—they likely bumped into each other a little during the drive. The truck was not stolen, or even borrowed from a dead man. Steve owned it because he bought it from his neighbor. Beau later sold the truck to help pay off the loan he took out to hire Doug Sanford to defend Steve in the second trial.

Michael Sirois

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