LuAnn Burgess was trying to dislodge her oversized flipflop after it became stuck near the gas pedal of her 2007 Toyota Highlander as it careened down Mountainview Street in Voorheesville around 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2011.
The 56-year-old Voorheesville woman’s distraction — coupled with the vehicle’s speed and a number of prescription drugs that were in her system — proved to be tragically fatal. Burgess’ Toyota veered off the road and slammed into a group of women gathered by St. Matthew’s Church for a walk through Voorheesville, killing all three of them.
Burgess could now be ordered to serve up to six months in jail and lose her right to drive in New York after admitting to three felony counts of criminally negligent homicide in the deaths of the three women. Counts of aggravated vehicular manslaughter and first-degree vehicular manslaughter — charges that could have landed her in prison for up to 25 years — were dismissed as part of a plea agreement reached Friday morning in Albany County Court.
Judge Stephen Herrick issued a gag order for both attorneys in the case until Burgess is sentenced Jan. 11. Criminally negligent homicide is punishable by up to four years in prison, but the mandatory minimum allows judges the discretion to issue probation.
Fran Pallozzi, 81, of Waterford, Carol Lansing, 66, of Green Island, and Rosemarie Hume, 79, of Waterford, were all killed in the horrific crash. The three women were members of the Empire State Capital Volkssporters waiting for a fourth to begin their stroll through the village.
Burgess, who suffered minor injuries in the crash, later told investigators she had just dropped a foster child off down the road as part of her regular morning routine. She said she was wearing her husband’s flipflops when one became lodged and caused the vehicle to accelerate.
Investigators later determined Burgess’ foot never went for the brakes as the vehicle accelerated from 38 mph to 46 mph. The vehicle crossed through part of a parking lot and hit the women. The Toyota continued at least another 70 feet, dragging two bodies until crashing into the brick wall of the church bell tower.
Toxicology tests later showed Burgess had Xanax, Wellbutrin and Serequol in her system. Each can cause a level of drowsiness that can affect a person’s ability to drive.
An investigation centered around Burgess’ toxicology and the prescription drugs the motorist was apparently taking for symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease. The case plodded on for months until a grand jury returned a seven-count criminal indictment in August, just three days before the one-year anniversary of the crash.
Prior to the indictment, civil actions were filed against Burgess by the families of the three women. All three reached undisclosed settlements in the full amount of her insurance policy limit, said E. Stewart Jones, the attorney who represented the families.
“It certainly wasn’t enough,” he said Friday, declining to discuss the amount.
The Volkssporters memorialized their three fallen members in August during a ceremony conducted about a week after Burgess’ indictment. As a remembrance, the group has worn loops of orange, green and blue-striped ribbon affixed with a silver cross or a dove during every walk since the women died.
“I think the overriding feeling that most of us have is that we’ve lost three good friends and that it didn’t seem fair,” said Bob McElroy of Schenectady during the August memorial. “It’s brought a new reality to everybody here, as well as the general public. How can this happen? We’ll never forget them.”
Burgess’ plea brings to an end a case that left the families emotionally raw — attempts to reach them Friday were unsuccessful. Jones said many of them simply wanted to move on with their lives in the wake of such a tragic event.
“It was an enormous tragedy, and the families had a great deal of mixed emotions,” he said.