Illegal passer guilty in death of Maria Lara
After two long days of trial testimony, a jury took only 20 minutes to find Adam Buchalski guilty of second-degree manslaughter, fourth-degree assault and reckless driving.
Last January, Buchalski crashed head-on into a car driven by 22-year-old Maria Lara Martinez, a Hillsboro resident, Glencoe High School graduate and popular employee at the Cornelius Verizon Go Wireless store. She was killed instantly.
At the time, Buchalski was on probation for another conviction and now faces an enhanced sentence of more than six years in prison.
The crash occurred north of Cornelius on Susbauer Road where the road dips so deeply, it’s impossible for a northbound driver near the top of the hill to see what’s at the bottom, and vice versa.
Buchalski, who was driving north when he swerved into the southbound lane and struck Lara’s southbound car, tried to convince the jury Wednesday that he wasn’t recklessly passing in a clear no-passing zone because he knew it “would be insane” to attempt a passing maneuver at the spot.
In fact, every witness who testified said that section of Susbauer was a dangerous place.
When Washington County District Attorney Chris Lewman asked jury members to base their verdict on whether Buchalski knew the risks and dangers of driving recklessly in that area, he made sure they remembered Buchalski’s “insane” comment.
“[Buchalski] made a conscious decision,” Lewman said during his closing argument.
“To characterize [Lara’s] death as a tragedy is accurate, but to characterize it as an accident is an injustice.”
Defendant: haunted by crash
On the Sunday morning she was killed, Maria Lara (she often dropped the Martinez) had stopped at her parents’ home, picked up her lunch, and was driving south on Susbauer toward the Cornelius Verizon Wireless store where she would be working that day.
Buchalski, a 53-year-old commercial electrician who came to the United States from Poland in 1987, and Paulina Lea, the owner of the car he was driving, were on their way to St. Stanislaus Polish Church in Portland.
At around 10:35 a.m., near the point where Long Road T-intersects Susbauer from the west, Lara’s southbound Honda Accord met Buchalski’s northbound Mercedes SUV when Buchalski crossed the solid centerline into the oncoming lane.
Though the swerve was slight and the moment only lasted a second, the impact was powerful enough to completely devastate the driver’s side of Lara’s vehicle.
When Lewman showed photos of the wreckage in the courtroom, Lara’s family members looked away.
Lea suffered a broken clavicle and other injuries, leading to the assault charge.
At Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, where he was treated for minor injuries, Buchalski told an officer that Maria’s car “came out of nowhere,” but offered no other explanation for the crash.
“Over the past six months, he’s come up with more stuff,” Lewman said.
During his testimony Wednesday, Buchalski said his improved memory is due to all the time he’s had to replay the sequence of events in his mind.
“I go through the accident 100 times a day,” he said.
‘Reasons’ don’t add up
Buchalski suggested various scenarios to explain why he swerved: a tire blow-out, a cruise-control malfunction, a brake check from the car in front of him.
But Crash Reconstructionist Deputy Jason McLaughlin had testified that Buchalski was travelling around 50 mph at the moment of impact and that no tire blowout occurred.
And Kane Goodwin, driver of the car directly in front of Buchalski, testified that he never hit his brakes. Goodwin, his wife and two children were going to get pizza and visit a jungle gym when Buchalski quickly and aggressively came up from behind.
While annoyed by the tailgating, Goodwin only had time to mutter a few expletives before the crash, his wife testified.
Buchalski, on the other hand, claimed Goodwin brake-checked as he moved to the right side of the road, indicating he wanted Buchalski to pass.
Both Goodwins denied this.
Lea, Buchalski’s passenger, also didn’t remember seeing any brake lights.
And Lewman used a video to show how difficult it would have been for Goodwin to move to the side of the road, which abruptly gives way to a ditch.
Yet Buchalski maintained that he was not deliberately attempting to pass in a clear, double-yellow, no-passing zone.
“You would be insane to pass there,” Buchalski said in testimony. “I did not try to pass.”
But the Goodwins and Buchalski himself testified he hit his blinker, indicating his intention to pass the Goodwins.
Buchalski also said the Goodwins’ car was similar to that of his ex-wife and he was tailgating because he wanted to check the license plate. One of his previous convictions was from a stalking charge initiated by the ex-wife, as well as a probation violation related to it.
‘What should have happened’
“His testimony could have been better,” Buchalski’s defense attorney, Richard McBreen, commented to the News-Times the next morning before giving his closing argument.
“His preoccupation with looking at the license plate demonstrates his carelessness,” McBreen said during his closing argument. However, “being careless and inattentive doesn’t excuse his behavior.” he said, maintaining that if Buchalski was guilty of anything, it would be criminally negligent homicide, and asked the jury to find his client not guilty of the three crimes with which he was charged.
For Buchalski, a criminally negligent homicide verdict would come with a maximum sentence of just over three years in prison.
Manslaughter, a Class C felony, is a Measure 11 charge and carries a minimum sentence of six years, three months, although Senior Judge Rick Roll could sentence him to as many as eight years in prison, given his multiple convictions and probation status at the time of the crime.
Lara’s family was confident the outcome would be in their favor, though the trial had clearly shaken them.
“Emotionally, we’re not OK,” said Claudia Velazquez, who was sitting next to Lara’s sister.
But the three guilty verdicts helped give them a sense of closure.
“It’s what should have happened, whether it was this case or another,” said Lara’s sister, Alicia Lara Martinez.
Buchalski, who has been in jail since February, will be sentenced Aug. 21.