ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — The trial for a Roanoke man charged with four counts of manslaughter in connection with a deadly gas station explosion in Rockbridge County in 2019 entered its fourth day on Thursday.
On May 10, 2019, an explosion at the South River Market killed four people, including the owner of the store, Roger Lee Roberts; two employees, Kevin Tate Roberts and Samantha Gail Lewis; and a patron, Paul Dewayne Ruley.
Phillip Ray Westmoreland, the driver of the truck that delivered the fuel to the gas station, was arrested on March 19, 2021 and charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to Rockbridge County court records.
Seventeen months after Westmoreland’s arrest — on Thursday, Aug. 18 — the fourth day of his trial got underway, even though Judge Christopher Russel informed the court that one juror had been dismissed due to family issues and was replaced with the alternate juror.
On Thursday morning, Virginia State Police Senior Special Agent Mark Austin went back on the stand to share more facts about his investigation into the explosion, which lasted until November 2019.
The prosecution questioned Austin about his understanding of Westmoreland’s qualifications to be a tanker driver.
Austin says tankers are supposed to have a class A license for combination vehicles — including tankers that weigh 26,000 pounds or more. He adds drivers like Westmoreland would need a special endorsement to drive those vehicles or a tanker.
In Austin’s investigation, he also obtained documents of multiple deliveries made to the South River Market, the amount of fuel that was picked up, the miles driven, the capacity size of the tanks, and more.
During the trial, some of those delivery tickets were noted to the jury as:
- Oct. 8, 2018
- Dec. 19, 2019
- Jan. 7, 2019
- March 27, 2019
Austin also explained that there were multiple safety inspections of Westmoreland’s vehicle. In that report, no issues came up.
“There are minor defects that would not have caused a malfunction of the distribution of gasoline or the tanker,” said Mary E. Lester, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney for Rockbridge County and the City of Lexington, as she read out a stipulation of the safety inspection.
In the defense’s cross-examination, Westmoreland’s attorney, Robert Dean, questioned Austin about his investigation, focusing on the “flag, bag, and tag” technique in order to show that other investigators at the scene handled that rather than Austin.
In order to demonstrate that a thorough investigation was not conducted, Dean also questioned Austin about dumpsters that may have been used after the explosion. Defense claimed the dumpsters were dropped off at different locations and that Austin never looked inside of them to see if any important evidence was thrown out.
After Austin left the stand, the prosecution brought Virginia State Police Special Agent Shane Clifton — who interviewed Westmoreland after the explosion — to the stand.
Clifton told the court that Westmoreland had years of experience driving trucks and proceeded to discuss Westmoreland’s routine every time he delivered gasoline.
“He doesn’t question the amount on the order. He just picks up the order and delivers,” said Clifton.
According to Clifton, Westmoreland made seven to 10 deliveries at the South River Market.
Next up, they discussed how Westmoreland measured the tanks before he began pumping fuel into them.
“He remembered the measurement for the conventional tank was 65 inches,” said Clifton.
It was noted that Westmoreland never suggested there was something wrong with the tanks.
After a brief lunch, everyone entered the room to listen to an hour-and-45-minute audio recording of Clifton’s interview with Westmoreland about the morning before Westmoreland delivered the fuel.
Once fully loaded, he told investigators about how he filled the tanks at the South River Market.
Westmoreland was also questioned on various numbers regarding the tank size, how much he needed to fill them up with gas, the amount of space, etc.
“Just tell them you need my driver sheet and anything they need from that store,” said Westmoreland in the recording.
According to Westmoreland, it’s hard for him to remember numbers, so he writes down everything in his driving delivery book.
A few minutes into the interview, Westmoreland willingly took a breathalyzer test. In addition, he was asked if he ever used drugs, drank alcohol, used his cellphone, or did anything that would have distracted him.
Meanwhile, the prosecution is trying to prove that Westmoreland allegedly never looked at the conversion charts, which would have given him the right measurement to put the gasoline in the tanks.
At one point in the interview, Westmoreland discussed a vapor recovery system, which catches vapors from the tank that is refueled.
He also admitted that the South River Market’s system was so old that he didn’t have that system, making the vapors go straight up into the air.
During the the fourth day of the trial, a huge portion of the interview focused on the measurements of the tank, the conversion unit used when delivering, and whether or not Westmoreland was distracted during the delivery.
Thursday’s proceedings ended after the audio recording concluded. The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 19.