WOBURN — The owner of Lynnway Auto Auction in Billerica pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges related to the May 2017 crash that killed five during a swift proceeding in Middlesex Superior Court on Thursday.
Both owner James Lamb, 67, of Andover, and Lynnway Auto Auction, Inc. — the first company to ever be charged with manslaughter by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s Office — were arraigned on five counts of manslaughter.
Following the arraignment, Lamb’s attorney, Hank Brennan, told reporters Lamb took every safety measure known and has been cooperating with law enforcement.
“He has been in the auto auction business for 47 years and there’s no way he could have ever, ever anticipated such a terrible tragedy that occurred that day,” Brennan said.
Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
Brennan said a press conference in March held by Ryan’s office in advance of the arraignment presented a “skewed version of the facts.” Brennan did not respond to any questions.
During the March press conference, Ryan said Lamb was in charge of day-to-day operations at the business. Investigators found the business did not ensure all drivers were properly licensed and trained.
Incident reports created by the company and reports from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration show previous instances where employees were struck by cars or injured in “unsafe conditions,” according to Ryan. Before the crash, Ryan said the company was notified they should not employ unlicensed drivers, she said.
After a 2014 incident, resulting in the injury of employee Alfredo Masa, the business was told to install safety devices, such as barriers between car and pedestrian lanes, according to a court document filed by the prosecution. The business did not install this equipment, the document said.
Roger Hartwell, 78, of Quincy, was the driver of the 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee that entered the pedestrian area during an auction on May 3, 2017. The vehicle struck several people, and crashed through a cinder block wall. Hartwell was not charged, because the auction house is not a public way, Ryan announced in March.
Three people were pronounced dead at the scene, two others later died from injuries and 12 people were transported to area hospitals, according to court documents.
Records obtained in the weeks following the crash showed Hartwell had his license suspended in 2012, which was never reinstated. Hartwell had been cited in seven crashes since 1985, according to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The statement of the case filed by prosecutors with the court includes additional information about Hartwell’s conversation with investigators.
Hartwell got to the Billerica auction house at 400 Charter Way by taking a bus to a T station then carpooling with a co-worker the rest of the way, according to the court filing. At the time of the crash, Lynnway Auto Auction, Inc. sold wholesale used cars to licensed dealers on Wednesday mornings.
Hartwell told investigators a man later identified as John Sirek plugged a handheld diagnostic device commonly used by buyers at the auction house into a port under the driver’s-side dash board. He told investigators after one or two seconds “the thing goes vroom” and the car accelerated on its own.
Hartwell said he swerved out of the vehicle lane to avoid the car in front of him, running into onlookers, and then tried to swerve out of the pedestrian lane to avoid the people.
“He did not know if he hit the accelerator and he did not know if he hit the brake,” according to the court document. “He described something like this happening to him before when the onboard diagnostic device was hooked up to the car. On those occasions he would put the car in neutral and brake. He did not do that today and did not know why.”
In video surveillance, Sirek, the man who plugged in the diagnostic device, can be seen following the crash “weaving through the crowd,” opening the Jeep door and removing the device, the court document said.
A state trooper who inspected the Jeep found the vehicle was in “excellent mechanical condition” and did not have any defects that could have contributed to the crash. According to data recorded by the car, the accelerator was depressed 100 percent in the two seconds leading up to the crash, reaching 32 mph, the document said.
Rhode Island residents Brenda Lopez, 41, and Pantaleon Santos, 49 were killed in the crash. The victims also include Leezandra Aponte, 36, of Lowell, Elliott Rowlands Jr., 50, of Buzzards Bay and Ruben Espailat, 55, of Methuen.
Lamb, who was not in custody prior to the proceeding, was released on personal recognizance. The next court date for Lamb and his company is July 11 for a scheduling conference.
Lynnway Auto Auction, Inc. is currently registered to Lamb, who signed an annual filing for the business as recently as this March, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
According to Ryan, Lamb could face up to 20 years in prison for each count. The business could face up to a $1,000 fine for each count of manslaughter.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins