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Franco takes stand, testifies boyfriend was driving van

WILLMAR -- Olga Marina Franco Del Cid took the stand Tuesday and testified that her boyfriend, Francisco S. Mendoza, drove the minivan that caused the fatal school bus crash Feb. 19 near Cottonwood.

Later in the day, Franco's defense team rested and the prosecution began calling rebuttal witnesses, including a Montevideo police officer who ticketed Franco for driving without a license two years ago. At the end of the day, Judge David W. Peterson asked the jury to be prepared to be sequestered during deliberations. "Expectations are that the case will be delivered to you tomorrow," he said to the jury.

During her testimony, in Spanish through an interpreter, Franco said she and Mendoza argued earlier in the day over photos of his ex-wife and about her clothing. She said the argument continued as they were on their way to Cottonwood to work.

She said she saw the van's speedometer at 55 mph before the vehicle crossed the railroad tracks immediately west of the intersection of County Road 24 and state Highway 23. She told him there was a bus coming, but he turned his head.

Franco said, as the crash was about to happen, she took off her seatbelt "because I didn't want anything to happen, I wanted to get out of the van."

Mendoza was pushed out of the van in the crash and lay down on the roadway, she said. She couldn't get out of the vehicle, and he attempted to pull her out of the vehicle but could not.

Firefighters testified last week that they cut the van's pillars and used hydraulic rams to roll the van's dash off Franco's right leg to extricate her.

Franco said the boyfriend threatened her life if she told anyone that he was driving. Then he ran away along County Road 24. She said she moved herself into the driver's seat, from the middle of the van. "I had already moved myself to a comfortable position there."

During cross-examination by Lyon County Attorney Rick Maes, Franco said she didn't remember telling people at the Marshall hospital that she was driving, that she had a conversation with State Patrol officers or even a conversation with her aunt the next day.

"I don't remember anything," she repeated twice during the questioning.

Consulting mechanical engineer Donn Peterson testified that he inspected the scene of the crash, the bus and the van in April. He used an engineering modeling program to determine that the unbelted occupants of the van did not move left in the impact of the crash, but that the van did begin to spin, appearing to push them to the left.

"The vehicle moves and makes 'the illusion of going left,'" he said.

Peterson testified that if the driver was unbelted and the driver's door opened, that person would not be able to stay inside the vehicle. Furthermore, if the passenger was unbelted, the passenger would move toward the driver's seat.

Franco testified earlier that she had pulled herself from between the seats into the driver's seat after the crash.

During cross-examination by Maes, Peterson agreed that the interior damage to the van was done at impact with the bus.

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.

During her nearly three hours of testimony, Franco said she paid a total of $8,000 to "coyotes," people who illegally transport individuals into this country, to get into the U.S. three years ago. She said she lived with relatives in Montevideo, Marshall and Willmar before moving in last year with the Mendoza, who was using an alias of Samuel Rivera Melendrez. Earlier testimony from an agent for the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement included that he is believed to be in Mexico.

Franco said he was physically and mentally abusive, and very jealous when relatives and friends called her on the phone. He also told her to quit working at Jennie-O Turkey Store a few months into their relationship.

Franco said she stayed with the boyfriend because she loved him, and was afraid of him. "He always said if I broke up with him, my life would be at risk," she said, adding that he threatened to kill her.