Franco found guilty on all counts in fatal bus crash
WILLMAR -- Olga Marina Franco Del Cid was found guilty of all 24 counts, including criminal vehicular homicide, for driving a minivan that caused a school bus crash and killed four students near Cottonwood.
The five-man, seven-woman jury comprised of Kandiyohi County residents returned the verdict just after 10 p.m. Wednesday night.
Before the verdicts were read, Judge David W. Peterson instructed those assembled in the gallery that it was "absolutely essential" that they not express emotion or outbursts during the reading of the verdicts. The jury received the case just after 2 p.m. and deliberated for about eight hours. The Lyon County case was moved to Willmar on a change of venue.
Franco, her team of attorneys and the gallery did not express visible emotion. Several of the victim's family members wiped away tears as the verdicts were read.
"I knew she was guilty," said Rita Javens, who was sobbing as she commented to the gaggle of media and television cameras in front of the Kandiyohi County Courthouse.
"We were amazed, we were right about the whole thing," her husband, Marty, said. "My biggest fear was that if she wasn't found guilty, this was just going to be swept under the rug.
The Javens lost two sons: Jesse; 13, and Hunter; 9, in the Feb. 19 crash along state Highway 23.
"Another young life is ruined, and it's hers (Franco's)," said David Javens, grandfather of the Javens brothers. "We've been waiting for this for a long time."
Peterson ordered a pre-sentence investigation and informed the attorneys the sentencing will be set within 30 to 45 days.
"I still believe in the process," said defense attorney Neal Eisenbraun after the verdict. About his client, he said "she is confused, because she doesn't understand the process."
Franco was charged with four charges of criminal vehicular homicide in the deaths of the Javens brothers, Emilee Olson, 9, and Reed Stevens, 12. Sixteen other children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15 years old, and James Hancock, the driver whose vehicle was struck by the bus, were injured in the crash. Franco was also charged with 13 felony and four gross misdemeanor charges of criminal vehicular injury. She also was found guilty of lesser charges for giving a peace officer a false name, not having a driver's license and for not stopping at a stop sign.
During final arguments Wednesday morning, the prosecutor in the case focused on the testimony by the firefighters who extricated Franco from the driver's seat of the vehicle and engineers who testified about the crash details.
"She had to be extricated from the vehicle," Lyon County Attorney Rick Maes said. "The fact that she had to be extricated is the telling tale."
Maes also cited testimony by the state trooper who reconstructed the accident and the mechanical engineer who testified about what happened to the van and its occupants after the impact. Both men's testimony was that the damage to the van's front end occurred at the impact, Maes said. "At that point, whoever's driving is pinned, if they are pinned. That's what happened here."
Mothers of the killed and injured children cried in the gallery as Maes listed the names of the children involved in the accident.
After the arguments, Ralph DesLauriers, the Rita Javens' father, said his heart goes out to his daughter and son-in-law. The Javens had a number of family members in the courtroom since testimony began July 31.
"How would you feel if you lost two-thirds of your family," DesLauriers said.
Defense attorney Neal Eisenbraun told the jurors that the state had not proven the case, because it let Franco's boyfriend, Francisco Mendoza, get away. Franco argues that Mendoza was driving the van that day and ran from the scene. Franco said that she pulled herself into the driver's seat after the impact. An agent with the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement testified that Mendoza is believed to be in Mexico. ICE agents and local police officers searched for him in Willmar, the Chicago area and in Texas, he said.
"(The state) had somebody already, they didn't need him," Eisenbraun said. "They let the snow blow over his tracks."
A portion of Eisenbraun's one hour of closing comments was about how the state did not pursue Mendoza and stressed that his fleeing is evidence in the case.
"He knew he was driving and that he would get in trouble for it," Eisenbraun said. "They (the state) are desperate to convict someone in this tragedy. The woman they have had locked up for the past half-year will do just fine."
Not a single witness told the jury that Franco was driving, Eisenbraun said. "For the simple reason that she didn't drive that van that day. ... She never drove it."
In earlier rebuttal testimony, Ben Standahl, a Minneota police officer, testified that he had seen the same van drive past the town's high school six times with a woman driving. He believes the woman was Franco. The officer said he would park near the school around 3 p.m. when school ended for the day. He also said he observed the same vehicle in the trailer park where Franco and Mendoza lived.
Defense attorney Manuel Guerrero accused Standahl of making the information up during cross-examination.
After Standahl's testimony, Franco retook the stand and testified again that she never drove the van that crashed into the bus, not during the crash, or in the two weeks she lived in Minneota before the crash. She said, via an interpreter, that between 2 to 3 p.m. she would be at home cooking and that she and Mendoza left for work each weekday at 3:20 p.m.