Truck driver whose flying wheel killed a state trooper to admit responsibility in plea deal

·4 min read

Jul. 28—Three years ago, a Maine state trooper who had stopped on Interstate 95 to aid a stranded motorist was killed when a wheel from a passing logging truck suddenly flew off and and struck him.

Now the truck's owner and driver on that day in 2019 has agreed to admit his responsibility in the death of Benjamin Campbell, a 31-year-old detective for the Maine State Police.

Scott Willett, 55, won't face jail time but he is expected to be fined and have his license suspended.

Under a plea agreement, he will admit to one charge of motor vehicle violation, a civil offense, and five motor carrier rule violations, said R. Chris Almy, assistant district attorney for Penobscot County.

His office is asking the court to suspend Willett's license for six months and impose $15,000 in fines.

"We thought it was important that people who drive commercial vehicles understand the ramifications of operating a commercial vehicle that's defective," said Almy.

The Maine State Police detective was on his way to a training event the morning of April 3, 2019 when he volunteered to respond to a dispatch call regarding a stranded motorist who had spun out from a slippery section of I-95. He arrived on the scene and pulled over in his department-issued Ford Explorer SUV, its blue emergency lights activated, just south of the Coldbrook Road overpass in Hampden.

Willett's logging truck was approaching Campbell's car, moving into the left lane to give Campbell space. But as Willett switched lanes, two wheel and tire assemblies detached from the truck. One of the wheels rolled into the median. The other struck Campbell. He sustained massive injuries from the impact and was pronounced dead at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Willett, who owns Scott Willett Trucking, was hauling a load of logs that morning.

Maine State Police have said that Willett was following the law and was driving safely when he switched lanes to get out of Campbell's way, and that he was not driving under the influence.

But, according to the civil and traffic violations, he is expected to admit to operating a truck with several defects.

Federal records the Portland Press Herald reviewed in 2019 show Willett's two trucks were inspected twice in 2018. That February, inspectors found no defects in one truck, a Freightliner. But in June, they issued violations in an inspection of his other truck, a Kenworth. Inspectors said the truck was more than 5,000 pounds over the allowable weight limit. At least one of its tires also had tread below the acceptable minimum.

After Campbell's death, in June 2019, Maine State Police suspended the mechanic who gave Willett his inspection sticker for the logging truck, 27 days before Campbell's death, according to a report at the time from the Bangor Daily News, which first reported his plea deal Thursday.

State police said the truck didn't receive a full and thorough inspection.

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald in April 2019, an official with the Tire Industry Association said that this kind of death was rare, but usually catastrophic. There is no state and federal data that can point to how often these malfunctions happen. So even though trucks like Willett's drive hundreds of thousands of miles on U.S. roadways each day, it's unclear how often they lose tires, and how often these malfunctions result in serious tragedy.

Three years have passed since Campbell's death. Almy said Wednesday it's taken that long to issue charges and secure a plea agreement, mostly due to a backlog in cases because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Penobscot County District Attorney's office originally charged Willett with operating a defective vehicle, a Class E level criminal offense. That charge has been dropped in exchange for Willett admitting to the civil and traffic violations.

"If he's taking responsibility for death by violation, we felt that was more significant," Almy said.

District attorney's offices in Maine's busier counties usually don't get involved in civil or traffic violations. In Penobscot, Almy said the office doesn't have enough prosecutors to handle driving-related infractions, unless they result in great harm or death when a "prosecutor should definitely be involved."

Defense attorney James Dunleavy did not return a call from the Portland Press Herald late Wednesday morning, requesting more information on Willett's anticipated plea.

Campbell had been working for Maine State Police since 2012 and was promoted to detective in 2016. He died days before his 32nd birthday.

He is survived by his wife and a young son, who was six months old at the time of his death. Almy said his office has been in touch with Campbell's family throughout the case and that relatives likely will speak at Willett's August hearing.