Another hung jury in second Park County homicide trial

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Walter J. “Joey” Overstreet Jr.

The second trial of a young man charged with vehicular homicide while under the influence ended just as the first one did — with a hung jury.

Walter J. “Joey” Overstreet Jr., 21, was tried in August of last year in Park County District Court on charges of vehicular homicide while under the influence following a Dec. 13, 2015 singlevehicle accident that left Rhianna Wills, 17, dead. Two of the other four occupants of the 2006 Chevrolet Silverado extended-cab pickup truck, Kody Chambers and Brittany Austin, sustained serious injuries, for which Overstreet was charged with two counts of negligent vehicular assault. None of the victims were wearing seat belts, and all of the accident victims, who were all underage, tested positive for alcohol consumption.

The August trial resulted in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a unanimous decision.

This most recent trial ran from Tuesday, March 13 to Friday, March 16.

Park County Attorney Bruce Becker said Monday the jury advised Judge Robert Olson Friday night at about 11:15 p.m. that they could not reach a unanimous decision. Becker said Olson sent them back to the jury room for further deliberations, but they returned about 45 minutes later, at which time Olson declared a mistrial.

Becker said he hasn’t decided yet whether or not to try the case a third time.

“We’re contemplating our options,” Becker said. “We’ll consult with the victims and families before making any decisions.”

Defense attorney Jami Rebsom of Livingston did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Messages and emails were left for several of the jurors, none of whom immediately responded.

Rhianna’s parents, Jake and Kris Wills, live in Kansas now and returned for the trial last week. Reached by phone Monday morning, Jake said he would like to see another trial occur.

“If he (Overstreet) wasn’t driving, why did everyone else (involved in the accident) say he was driving?” he said.

Kris said her reaction to the verdict was disbelief and “deep, deep sadness,” but added that she understood the defense attorney was merely doing her job.

“I understand it’s the job of the defense attorney to cast doubt,” Kris Wills said Monday. “But it’s like she throws a handful of spaghetti and sees what will stick to the wall.”

Kris said the case, to her, is about more than justice for her daughter.

“Our daughter is in a place where she doesn’t care about justice anymore,” Kris said. “Our biggest issue now is we want to keep Joey out from behind the wheel of a vehicle.”

Rebsom cast doubt that Overstreet was the driver of the truck when it crashed. Overstreet was found several yards away from the truck, ejected, officials presumed, when the truck crashed. One emergency services provider on scene said Overstreet was found in a clump of willows as if he had fallen from the sky.

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Erick Fetterhoff testified early in the trial that Overstreet said, at the accident scene, “I was driving too fast.”

Overstreet also claimed responsibility for the accident in a Facebook message posted shortly after the accident. But nearly a year after the accident, when he was shown his wrecked vehicle, he testified that he realized he could not have been driving because the front driver’s seat, despite the accident compression, was positioned too far forward. Overstreet stands 6 feet, 11 inches tall. He testified that in order for him to drive a vehicle — any vehicle — the driver’s seat has to be pushed back as far as it will go and placed in somewhat of a reclined position. He said he can’t drive if the seat is positioned too far upright.

Rebsom presented an eyewitness, Michele Mauer, who said she saw Joey get into the back seat of his own truck on Main Street at about 11:15 p.m. the night of the accident. She said she did not see the truck drive away and did not see who was driving.

A 911 call came in shortly after midnight from Chaz Gabauer, one of the other young people in the accident vehicle.

Accident reconstruction experts testified the front seat was within 3 inches of being pushed all the way back as far as it would go.

Rebsom suggested the possibility that Kody Chambers may have been driving. She suggested that his injuries — broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and lacerated liver — were the kind of injuries a driver might sustain when striking the steering wheel.

And she had Overstreet stand and remove his tie, shirt and undershirt to show the jurors scars on his back allegedly sustained in the accident. He also had a serious head injury to the back of his head. He testified that he had had broken glass in his left shoulder. Rebsom suggested, to account for his injuries from the glass, that Overstreet could have been thrown through the rear window of the truck.

Becker showed the jury a large dent in the driver’s side door frame. Accident reconstruction expert Barbara Watson suggested the dent could have been caused by Overstreet striking the back of his head on the frame when he was ejected from the driver’s seat, if he had been the driver.

The case was sent to the jury at 4:30 p.m. Friday to begin its deliberations. At about 5:15 p.m., the jurors were seen outside the rear of the City-County Complex, viewing for a second time the wrecked 2006 Chevy Silverado extended-cab truck that belonged to Overstreet.

Later, the jury asked to review the audio recording of the 911 call made by Chaz Gabauer, one of the six occupants of the truck at the time of the accident. Gabauer testified that when the truck came to rest, his feet were stuck under the dashboard in the front passenger seat because the dash had come forward several inches from the impact of the crash. Gabauer had to wiggle out of his shoes. He managed to walk up to the highway to place a 911 call. Fetterhoff testified he discovered Gabauer shoeless, wearing only socks.

A crash reconstruction expert testified during the trial that he estimated the truck was traveling between 87 and 94 mph when it left the roadway. The truck hit a driveway berm that was perpendicular to U.S. Highway 89 North — about 7 miles north of Interstate 90 — and was airborne before the front of the truck struck the ground and rolled end over end.

Becker said he did not have immediate figures on the cost of the second trial. Most of the those testifying were law enforcement officers on duty. One expert witness, Barbara Watson, who owns her own company, Watson Crash Reconstruction, was paid about $4,000, Becker said.

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