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Defense begins calling witnesses in fatal bus crash trial

WILLMAR -- The defense team for Olga Marina Franco Del Cid began calling witnesses Monday morning who testified they saw the Minneota woman's boyfriend running from the fatal school bus crash near Cottonwood.

Franco is accused of a total of 24 criminal charges from the Feb. 19 crash. The Lyon County case has been moved to Willmar on a change of venue.

In his opening argument, lead defense attorney Manuel Guerrero told the 15-member jury that their job was to figure out if his client was driving the van when it crashed into the bus.

"None of the state's witnesses told you Ms. Franco was driving," he said, adding that he wanted the jury members to keep an open mind and listen carefully to the evidence. Guerrero said he expects to call upon a bio-mechanical engineer who will testify that Franco was pushed 18 to 24 inches to the left by the centrifugal force exerted in the crash.

He also said she pulled herself onto the driver's seat, which is where emergency responders found her.

Guerrero also said he will call upon an orthopedic doctor to testify about how her ankle was broken. He also said that whether or not Franco will testify has not been decided, but said he would convince them of his client's innocence.

"You should all agree that Ms. Franco is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Three witnesses -- James Blodgett, Fabian Marcial and the defendant's cousin Luciana Franco -- testified Monday that they came upon the accident along state Highway 23 and saw a person running away from the scene west along County Road 24.

Franco's attorneys have been allowed to argue that Franco's boyfriend, Francisco S. Mendoza, was driving the van. Two of the witnesses identified Mendoza by his photo during testimony. They said he was known as "Samuel" or as "Francisco" but could not provide either of his last names. Mendoza used the alias of Samuel Rivera Melendrez and is believed to be in Mexico, according to earlier testimony from an agent from the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Marcial said he translated, into Spanish, questions for an emergency medical technician attending to Franco.

Luciana Franco testified that someone informed her that her cousin was involved and that when she got to Olga Franco, "she told me he left, he left running," she said through a court interpreter.

Keryn Vigil, of Minneota, testified that he was going to work in Cottonwood when he came upon a man running in the road. He said he picked up the man, whom he knew as "Samuel," and took him back to his family's home in Minneota. "God put him in my way, and I decided to help him," Vigil said.

Vigil allowed the man to stay overnight at his home because the man didn't have the key to his own home. The next morning, Vigil testified, he brought the man to Willmar.

Vigil said he didn't know that "Samuel" was involved in the accident until the next day at work. He came forward a week later and informed the Lyon County Sheriff's Office about his involvement.

The last witness of the day, Salvador Cruz, Franco's court-appointed counselor, testified briefly that he met with the woman while she was in jail in Lyon and Kandiyohi counties. He said she had been "very much abused" by the controlling Mendoza, who told her what to wear and when to wear makeup or paint her nails.

Guerrero's three attempts to ask Cruz what Franco told him during counseling sessions were blocked. Rick Maes, the Lyon County attorney prosecuting the case, objected each time, and the objections to the questions were sustained, or upheld, by Judge David W. Peterson.

Guerrero then ended his questioning and Peterson ordered court into a recess until this morning.

Franco faces four charges of criminal vehicular homicide for the Feb. 19 deaths of four Lakeview School students: Jesse Javens, 13; his brother, Hunter Javens, 9; Emilee Olson, 9; and Reed Stevens, 12. Sixteen other children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15 years old, and another driver whose vehicle was struck by the bus, were injured in the crash. Franco is accused of 17 charges of criminal vehicular injury. The Lyon County case has been moved to Willmar on a change of venue.

According to court and State Patrol documents, the bus was southbound on state Highway 23 around 3:45 p.m. Feb. 19 when it was struck by a minivan allegedly driven by Franco. The crash happened at the intersection with Lyon County Road 24 just south of Cottonwood.

Franco, who is also known as Alianiss Nunes Morales, is also charged with a gross misdemeanor for giving a false name to a peace officer and misdemeanor charges for driving without a license and for not stopping at a stop sign.