She had a brand new job and a baby on the way but it all ended abruptly when she was struck and killed by an SUV in a highway construction zone.
The Regina man accused of hitting and killing Ashley Richards — an 18-year-old flag worker — pleaded not guilty during the first day of his trial.
Keith Dunford, 47, made that plea to both of his charges — criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.
The trial began on Thursday in Weyburn, nearly three years after Richards was killed along Highway 39 near Midale. Richards had moved to Saskatchewan from Lakeside, New Brunswick. She was pregnant at the time of her death.
A number of individuals were called to the stand on the first of the two-day trial.
Semi-driver Katherina Neufeld witnessed the crash, describing how an SUV passed her in the orange zone despite there being no pass signs up. Neufeld said the pass wasn’t irregular and the vehicle wasn’t excessively speeding. However, she was surprised and confused as to why the SUV was passing everyone in the first place in a construction zone she said was clearly marked with signs.
Moments later the vehicle completed the pass but then suddenly swerved to the left and a post went flying, Neufeld testified. She said a man got out of the vehicle and she got out of her truck to see a woman in the ditch. Neufeld recalled how only one foot had a shoe.
She then pointed out Dunford in the courtroom as the man who she witnessed driving the SUV.
Keith Dunford outside court in Weyburn. Kevin Martel/CJME
Throughout the testimony Dunford looked calm, almost a neutral expression on his face as he sat in court with a suit jacket on, purple shirt and striped tie underneath.
Betty Barabash took the stand next. She was a former co-worker of Richards and was the one who trained the young woman. Barabash called Ashley a “bright, young lady” who was hired just one day before she was killed. The two spent time going over safety protocol and orientation. Richards eventually began flagging alone and mere hours after going solo she was killed.
Ashley Richards in a photo used in her obituary.
Exactly how long and detailed Richard’s training was drew a number of questions from defense lawyer Aaron Fox.
His line of questioning to RCMP Cpl. Jeff Burnett also centred around signage within an orange zone and the proper distance signs should be set up before construction. If they’re too far away, Fox stated, drivers may have the tendency to lose that attention. He pointed out how there’s actually provincial legislation to that effect in terms of how far away signage can be posted to alert drivers of an impending construction zone.
Burnett provided expert testimony in traffic collision analysis. He determined the cause of the crash was human error, estimating the vehicle was travelling between 82 and 99 km/h when it struck Richards. The speed limit was only 60 km/h. Burnett explained how the driver didn’t yield to the flagger, who would have had right-of-way.
Cst. Nick Melanson also testified. He was one of the first officers on scene. He described a red spatter of blood in the ditch near where the body landed. A blond tuft of hair could also be seen in the middle of the highway before the wind blew it away.
Melanson said Dunford didn’t show any signs of impairment from which he could tell. Instead, Dunford was said to be in shock, looking upset. Even though the RCMP member testified Dunford was quiet, Melanson said he was also co-operative with police. Court heard Dunford had a significant amount of blood on his jeans around both knees.
‘NEAR MISSES EVERY DAY’
Absent from the courtroom were any of Richards’ friends or family. However, two members of her former work family were in attendance.
Andrea Bachman and Reg Willick from HJR Asphalt sat in court the entire day.
“It’s a very family-oriented company so when this happened it hit everybody very, very hard,” explained Bachman.
The pair was not only there to show their support to their fellow employee, but also to get the word out again that things haven’t been drastically improved in orange zones since Ashley’s tragic death.
“Near misses every day,” revealed Willick. “We’re doing almost 99 per cent of anything, everything possible we can do and if the travelling public still isn’t going to pay attention, there’s nothing more we can do.”
He insisted it’s hard for the company to recruit flag people, calling it “terrible” and being forced to beg people.
Shortly after Richards’ death, the province announced photo radar would be going in select orange zones. Willick calls that more of a reactive measure, saying drivers get a ticket sometime in the future. He thinks having more police officers in work zones would help stop drivers in the moment, but realizes the resources may not be there.
“Legislation, that all helps and I know we’re trying hard, the government’s trying hard, we’re all trying to do it. But if the travelling public is not going to listen it doesn’t matter.”
The trial is expected to wrap up on Friday, where one more witness is scheduled to testify.