The driver who left the scene of a Ransomville fender bender, triggering events that resulted in a Niagara County sheriff's deputy losing both of his legs, was acquitted Wednesday of drunken driving.
A Porter Town Court jury deliberated for 33 minutes before finding Todd M. Hauser, 36, of New Road, not guilty of a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated.
After the verdict, the deputy, Allen Gerhardt, said by phone he hadn't followed the case. "No matter what happens to him, it doesn't change what happened to me," he said.
The jury convicted Hauser of leaving the scene of an accident and moving from a lane unsafely. Judge David J. Truesdale imposed $470 in fines and surcharges.
Because of the prejudicial nature of the information, the jury wasn't told that Gerhardt crashed his patrol car into a guardrail on Lake Road at about 1:30 a.m. July 18 as he responded to a call for backup after another officer saw Hauser flee on foot from the crash scene on Ransomville Road. The guardrail sliced into the patrol car and severed both of Gerhardt's legs.
"[That information] wouldn't have made any difference," a female juror, who declined to give her name, told a reporter after court.
Gerhardt, 37, was a decorated Army National Guard helicopter pilot who flew hundreds of combat missions during the Iraq War. He now has two prosthetic legs.
The jury also was not told that a blood sample taken from Hauser more than five hours after the crash showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 percent, twice the legal threshold for intoxication.
That evidence was suppressed because a Niagara County Jail nurse used a swab containing alcohol on Hauser's skin before taking the sample, thus tainting the results.
When defense attorney George V.C. Muscato told one of the jurors about the blood sample after the verdict, she was heard to reply, "It doesn't matter. It didn't come in."
"My client probably shouldn't have been charged with DWI," Muscato said. "I am extremely sensitive to the fact that a very good man suffered extensive injuries as as result of an auto accident. [The prosecution] just didn't have sufficient evidence to convince the jury."
The most severe sentence Hauser would have faced if he had been convicted of DWI was a year in jail.
The Niagara County District Attorney's Office concluded that despite what happened to Gerhardt, more serious charges could not have been filed against Hauser.
Hauser could have been jailed for 30 days on the traffic convictions, as urged by Deputy District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner. "A good man, a good deputy, a war hero, lost his legs because of this man," Brenner told the judge.
Truesdale declined to impose a jail sentence. "This has to be treated in a vacuum," he said. "The nexus of the other incident will be determined in another courtroom at another time."
"I'm sure it will be," said Gerhardt, who has been considering filing a lawsuit. So far none has been filed.
Hauser declined to comment.
Unable to use the blood test, Brenner introduced a series of text messages between Hauser and his wife while he was on the run for more than four hours after what Brenner called the "very, very minor accident" on Ransomville Road.
"So who runs from that? Someone trying to beat a DUI," Brenner told the jury.
He emphasized one text in which Hauser told his wife, "If I go tomorrow, it's a ticket, not a DUI," presumably meaning a delay in reporting the accident.
Brenner said Hauser, in three text messages and an exchange with the officer who caught him at 5:45 a.m. on Curtis Avenue in Ransomville, insisted that he had sideswiped a moving car when he had actually struck a parked car.
"He's so intoxicated, he doesn't know the difference between a parked car and a moving car," Brenner told the jury.
Brenner said the arresting officers thought Houser was intoxicated, but Muscato said field sobriety tests are "subjective."
"He didn't look drunk. He wasn't drunk," Muscato told the jury. "He wasn't weaving down Curtis Avenue."