The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 31, 2013

An unexpected testimony spells a guilty verdict for the man who killed his son in a DUI crash

David Hurst
dhurst@tribdem.com

EBENSBURG — A Cambria County jury needed only 40 minutes to decide an East Taylor Township man’s fate in the DUI crash that killed his son in 2012.

Their verdict – guilty of homicide by vehicle while under the influence and nine other charges – came after the complex crash case took yet another turn. A key defense witness who was a passenger in the truck told the court his earlier story putting the son, Brian Roles Jr., behind the wheel was false.

“I didn’t do the right thing,” the 16-year-old said, adding he felt guilty after lying Thursday. “My cousin’s not getting the justice he deserves.”

His new testimony – that Brian Roles Sr. had no seizure that night and was driving when truck flipped – seemed to serve as a game-changer in court.

Moments afterward, Roles’ defense attorneys told President Judge Timothy Creany they were dropping plans to make closing arguments.

Brian Jr.’s mother covered her mouth and watched quietly with tear-filled eyes as jurors found Roles Sr. guilty of his most serious charges. The 38-year-old East Taylor man showed no emotion, gazing forward at the judge’s bench.

Roles Sr. then flashed an obscene gesture at reporters approaching him for comment as he was being escorted from the courtroom.

“Did you get that?” he asked, lifting two middle fingers with handcuffed wrists.

Defense attorneys Ryan Gleason and Nicholas Banda left quietly, declining comment until sentencing, which President Judge Timothy Creany set for Sept. 25.

“Our thoughts are with the family now,” Assistant District Attorney Eric Hochfeld said. The “tragic” case was difficult on the late teen’s family, he said.

Moments earlier, Roles Jr.’s mother, Gretchen, exited waving her hand to decline comment.

She wore a shirt with the words “keep smiling” and her son’s photo printed on the front.  

Hochfeld said the family simply wanted “justice” and hoped the jury’s verdict will help deliver that.

One of Roles Sr.’s several felonies – homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence – carries a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence but could be longer, Hochfeld said.

He called Friday’s unexpected testimony by the teen, the backseat passenger, “critical.”

Just hours earlier, he told jurors Friday’s events made a sad crash “even sadder,” saying Roles drove under the influence of prescription pills and alcohol, and without a driver’s license, when he crashed his truck, killing his son. Roles then tried to conceal the details and coerced his nephew to go along with his tale, Hochfeld said.

“We know today who the driver really is,” Hochfeld told the jury.

“Mr. Roles was negligent ... drunk, medicated and prone to seizures,” Hochfeld added. “He should have known the risks of driving that night.”

Until Friday afternoon, the sides went back and forth during five days in court, presenting far different pictures of the wreck that occurred April 8, 2012, debating both the vehicle’s driver and the path the truck took during the crash.

Both sides presented veteran crash scene experts who disagreed with each other’s detailed version of how the crash occurred.

Both presented witnesses who offered different memories of what they saw, and both presented testimony offering different accounts of who was behind the wheel.

Roles Sr. took the stand in his own defense, choking up as he told the court he had a seizure in Kernville and then awoke to find his son driving just in time to try to grab the wheel to avoid a crash.

But his backseat, teenage passenger, after echoing the same story Thursday, sat in court somber and sobbing, testifying it was Brian Jr. who tried to grab the wheel from the passenger seat when “Big Brian” started nodding off.

There was no seizure that night, he said.

He told the court he felt “somewhat pressured” by Roles Sr. into going along with a story he knew was false. And family, he added, made him feel guilty about what he knew.

Cambria District Attorney Kelly Callihan said her office now considers the teen a victim in the case and said perjury charges will not be pursued.

A Children and Youth caseworker was assigned to the teen, whose name is now being withheld by The Tribune-Democrat.

“I just figured I could testify ... and just go straight through it,” he told Creany, saying he was unaware of the possible repercussions he could face for lying in court. “I didn’t think anything would happen.”

The teen indicated defense attorneys were unaware of what he described as rehearsed testimony between himself and Roles Sr., who until Friday had been free on bond for months.

The 16-year-old told Hochfeld he had not directly spoken with either defense attorney until Thursday afternoon.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/TDDavidHurst.