Liquor store employee tried for selling to Lindsey Ward ahead of fatal crash
BRECKENRIDGE — Officials held an unconventional trial for Avran LeFeber in a scantly attended hearing at the Summit County Justice Center on Friday morning. LeFeber was one of two liquor store clerks accused of selling alcohol to a visibly intoxicated Lindsey Ward minutes before she caused a fatal crash on Colorado Highway 9.
Legal teams on both sides of the case made their arguments to Judge Edward Casias, who will ultimately determine the disposition in the case in lieu of a jury, a move stipulated by attorneys to address COVID-19 and fair jury concerns.
Casias is yet to deliver his ruling on the case, but both the prosecution and defense were able to provide their complete arguments.
On Aug. 30, 2019, Ward was driving south on Highway 9 near Blue River when she swerved into the wrong lane and caused a head-on collision. The crash killed locals Benjamin Mitton, 41, and Nichole Gough, 43. Ward’s blood alcohol level was about 0.29 at the time of the crash, more than three times the legal limit.
Ward pleaded guilty to two felony counts of vehicular homicide DUI in April and was sentenced in June to 16 years in prison.
On the day of the crash, Ward was at the Breckenridge Golf Course where video surveillance showed that she had several drinks from about 2:20-4:45 p.m. Investigators in the case said there wasn’t sufficient evidence showing that she was overly intoxicated in the footage.
She left the golf course and drove to Breckenridge Market and Liquor, where she purchased beer and tequila from clerks LeFeber and Cody Moral. The fatal crash occurred minutes after she left, and the alcohol she bought at the store was discovered unopened in her car.
Following an investigation by the Department of Revenue’s Liquor Enforcement Division, the district attorney’s office charged LeFeber and Moral with misdemeanors for allegedly selling alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person.
LeFeber’s case moved forward Friday in a highly untraditional trial.
Earlier this week, Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Cava and defense attorney Todd Barson agreed to try the case with existing exhibits like witness statements and interviews, and without live witness testimony with the exception of LeFeber himself.
Cava said after the hearing that she’d never taken part in a trial of this kind, nor had any of her colleagues at the district attorney’s office to her knowledge. She said both sides largely agreed to the facts laid out in the case — the timeline of events, which witnesses said what, etc. — and that the hearing would serve to make legal arguments and point out discrepancies in statements.
Cava noted that one of her central witnesses in the case tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week and that she would have had to request a mistrial under normal circumstances. Barson also addressed the issue during the trial, saying that he doubted the court could have put together a fair jury given local news coverage of the crash and the subsequent adjudication of Ward’s case.
Casias signed off on the trial stipulations earlier this week.
The proceedings kicked off with a viewing of surveillance footage taken at the liquor store showing Ward making her way through the aisles and interacting with LeFeber and Moral. During checkout, Ward fumbled with the cash in her hand, and LeFeber took it from her to help her complete the transaction. There was no audio recording attached to the footage.
The prosecution said the footage shows Ward stagger when she entered the store and sway back and forth while in line. In combination with her presumptive blood alcohol level at the time and witness statements from a customer in the store, Cava said she felt the employees likely knew Ward was inebriated.
An interview with the witness, in which she said the clerks were “adamant” about giving Ward a ride home, was played for the court. The witness also said Ward was slurring her words and that she thought Ward was intoxicated.
Cava said the employees also should have been able to smell the alcohol on Ward’s breath given that emergency workers noted a strong odor following the crash.
“If we were to take the videos in a vacuum, it would be difficult,” Cava said. “But we thankfully have statements and observations from witnesses in the short time frame surrounding this incident that helps us understand what all is going on. … Thirteen minutes after the crash, there were people interacting with Ms. Ward who are smelling a heavy odor of alcohol. … She had a (blood alcohol content) extrapolated at 0.290 grams per 100 milliliters. That’s 14 minutes after leaving the liquor store. That’s not a little intoxicated. That’s not buzzed. That’s three times over the legal limit.”
LeFeber addressed the circumstances of the incident in his own testimony. He said Ward was a regular customer and that their interaction that day was ordinary. He said she didn’t appear to be inebriated but rather tired and dehydrated — what Ward chalked up to a day of golf.
LeFeber said he did offer to drive her home due to her tired state, noting that he had offered rides to customers before in an effort to be neighborly and that he hoped word would get around to a friend of Ward’s on which he had a crush.
“I didn’t think she was intoxicated,” LeFeber said. “… I did not insist (on giving her a ride); I offered. And I just wanted to make sure that she knew it was an option if she needed it because she looked tired. … She said numerous times she was tired and let out an exasperated sigh that she was tired, that it had been a long day, that she had been in the sun.”
LeFeber said Ward had come into the store drunk before and that he’d twice refused to sell to her. He also said that she was always unorganized and that it wasn’t unusual for him to help her or other patrons with their bills or credit cards at checkout.
Barson called the case “selective prosecution,” emphasizing the footage from the golf course just minutes earlier that didn’t show Ward visibly inebriated.
“There’s a big difference between a bartender slinging drinks and watching someone go at those drinks, and someone (who interacted with Ward) for 1 minute and 37 seconds,” Barson said. “You have to take into consideration, what did Avran see? He didn’t see her stumble, he didn’t hear her slur, he didn’t hear her say anything about drinks or anybody say anything about being intoxicated.”
Barson also called the video footage of the liquor store “mundane” and said that while prosecutors may have been able to glean suspicions of visible inebriation with the ability to stop, rewind and watch the footage multiple times, LeFeber didn’t have that same luxury.
The defense also pointed to a video of Ward taken after the accident, in which Barson said she didn’t show any difficultly balancing. He said Ward displayed a “tragic” alcohol tolerance that prevented LeFeber and Moral from intervening.
Casias said he’ll be doing a written ruling on the case and that he expects to have his decision completed by the end of next week. He’ll spend the time in between reviewing the statements and videos, along with other exhibits entered into evidence but not presented at trial.
Moral’s trial is scheduled for Dec. 8.
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