Dennis Drue admitted Friday he was speeding, driving recklessly and high on marijuana when he caused the horrific Northway crash that killed two Shenendehowa High School students and badly injured two other teens in December.
The admission from Drue, 23, of Halfmoon, caught prosecutors by surprise, as they were set to start the trial against him Monday. He pleaded guilty to every charge in the 58-count indictment against him, which included 52 felony counts.
He uttered more than a dozen guilty pleas in front of Saratoga County Court Judge Jerry J. Scarano to take responsibility for causing the accident that killed Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers, both 17, and injured Shen classmate Matt Hardy and Shaker High School student Bailey Wind. Members of the victims’ families, most dressed in Shen apparel or wearing buttons with the faces of Stewart or Rivers, filled the back row of the courtroom to hear the guilty plea.
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Drue is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 5 and will likely face a prison term of between five and 15 years, although Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said his office will be asking for a tougher penalty. The charges against Drue, who remains free on bail, included aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter and vehicular assault.
State police investigators say he rear-ended a Ford Explorer driven by Stewart on the Northway on Dec. 1, causing the vehicle to flip over several times. The car being driven by Stewart was going below the speed limit in the right lane and did nothing to cause the accident, stressed Murphy.
Stewart and Rivers died at the scene and it took emergency personnel more than two hours to safely remove Wind from the SUV. The scene was horrific and shocking, according to Murphy.
Based on a potential witness receiving text messages from Drue, phone records and information gathered from nearby cellphone towers, Murphy said in a news conference after the court appearance that Drue was likely texting moments before the accident.
He added that before the accident, Drue had been drinking in an Albany restaurant, to the point where patrons expressed concerns about him driving. Murphy said, “They walked up to the man who was sitting with [Drue], and said, ‘Are you his designated driver?’ ”
A witness, accident reconstruction results and a computer record from Drue’s car also suggested that he was driving more than 80 mph at the time of the accident.
Noting the combination of alcohol, marijuana, texting and speeding, Murphy said, “It is no doubt that something like this was going to happen.”
Drue had previously maintained that he wasn’t high or drunk at the time of the accident and that he had lost control due to black ice on the road. State Police were never able to find any black ice, however.
The guilty plea from Drue came about a week after his attempt to move the trial out of Saratoga County failed. Murphy said that may have factored in Drue abandoning his not-guilty plea. Drue and attorney Stephen Coffey did not take questions while leaving the courthouse Friday.
Initially, Friday’s court appearance was supposed to be a hearing to determine whether prior bad acts by Drue could be considered in the trial.
“It came as somewhat of a surprise to us,” Murphy said of the plea, which was hinted at Thursday.
“Our position was, the trial is Monday, we would entertain no plea bargaining,” he said. “We had gone through too much with the families ... [and] we were prepared to go forward, and in fact, unlike most cases, this case had gotten stronger.”
Murphy said his office withdrew any discussions of plea bargains at the last hearing, although he acknowledged his office had previously entertained a deal under which Drue would be sentenced to five to 15 years.
By pleading guilty to the entire indictment, it’s as if Drue was convicted at a trial, Murphy said. The only difference is that Drue could have faced a maximum sentence of 25 years in that case. Scarano signaled in court Friday he would likely impose only a maximum sentence of 15 years. During the pre-sentencing period, Murphy said his office will consult with the victims’ families to determine a recommendation for a stronger sentence to the judge.
At least one family member of each victim is expected to speak at the sentencing. They all declined to comment during Friday’s news conference.