Warrant: Driver and pedestrians both at fault in fatal Mystic crash

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A Saturday night out in Mystic this past winter that ended with the deaths of a beloved local couple and the arrest of a retired educator is detailed in a new court document released this week following a lengthy investigation by Stonington police.

The investigation concluded driver Carol M. Belli, 73, of Groton and pedestrians Joanna Wakeman, 78, and her husband, Seth, 88, of Montauk Avenue in Mystic all were found to be negligent.

Police say Belli, a retired elementary school teacher and principal, struck the Wakemans with her Ford Fusion as they crossed Route 27 near Rossie Pentway. The accident occurred just after 8 p.m. on March 9, leaving the Wakemans lying on the roadway face-down. They were both pronounced dead upon arrival at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. Autopsies indicated they both died from blunt impact injuries and the manner of death was accidental.

Belli failed field sobriety tests, though her blood alcohol level was below the legal limit of 0.08 percent for driving, according to Stonington police. She initially was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

She additionally was charged this week with two counts of negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison for each count. She turned herself in on Wednesday, posted a $25,000 bond and is due in New London Superior Court next Friday.

The arrest warrant affidavit for the new charges was written by Stonington police Officer Joseph McDermott, who is a traffic crash investigator assigned to the Southeastern Regional traffic unit. The warrant indicates police inspected Belli's car, measured skid marks, obtained toxicology and autopsy reports, interviewed witnesses and reviewed video of the incident from a camera on the Mystic Seaport's Schaefer building.

Belli and the Wakemans all failed to exercise reasonable care that night, the investigation concluded. In Belli's case, she consumed alcohol while taking an antidepressant and was driving an estimated seven to 14 miles above the posted 30 mph speed limit, according to the warrant. An alcohol/drug testing report for Belli "detected an interaction" between alcohol and the medication. The drugmakers indicate that patients should avoid alcohol, which may interact to cause impaired judgment, thinking and motor skills, and could affect a person's ability to operate a car.

Belli had gone to the Captain Daniel Packer Inne that evening with a female friend from Waterford. The Wakemans had dined at Latitude 41 restaurant and also consumed at least two drinks each, according to witnesses. The Wakemans had dined with another couple, longtime friends who were crossing Route 27 in front of the Wakemans when the accident occurred.

The investigation revealed that the Wakemans, both dressed in dark clothing, and their dining companions had not pressed the pedestrian crossing signal and had walked onto the roadway slightly outside of the crosswalk while the traffic light for vehicles was green. Autopsy results indicated they also had detectable blood alcohol levels: Seth Wakeman's was 0.03 percent and Joanna's was 0.09 percent.

"National Highway Traffic Administration considers a fatal crash to be alcohol related if either the driver or a non-occupant (pedestrian) had a blood alcohol content greater than .01 percent," the affidavit says. "The effects of alcohol on attention, perception, vision, judgment and motor control increases the risk of injury for an intoxicated pedestrian, and alcohol consumption by pedestrians is an important contributing factor to motor vehicle crashes in which pedestrians are injured or killed."

Belli's friend told police they each had two drinks and shared taco and flatbread appetizers at the Captain Daniel Packer Inne, statements that appeared to be borne out by interviews with restaurant staff and receipts. The friend said they left the restaurant about 7:40 p.m. and Belli did not appear intoxicated. Belli told police she was still hungry and had gone to McDonald's for a hamburger.

Her blood alcohol concentration, taken by Breathalyzer one hour and 19 minutes after the 8:07 p.m. incident, was 0.0686 percent. Blood tests to determine alcohol level were inconclusive, but the tests did indicate an interaction between the alcohol and antidepressant, according to the warrant.

Belli told police at the scene that the pedestrians had come "out of nowhere" and that she was not drunk, but "not sober sober."

The manager at Latitude 41 that night, identified only as "Witness 3" in the warrant, was the great-niece of the Wakemans. She said the couple each had one drink "on the house" that night, ate salads and chicken entrees and had an additional drink. She said the restaurant was busy, and she didn't spend as much time as she would have liked with them. She said Joanna Wakeman said "love you dears" as she walked out behind the others. She said the Wakemans always held hands when they crossed a street together.

The great-niece/manager said she ran out and laid on the street with Joanna Wakeman, whom she was almost positive was dead, until someone pulled her away. She said Seth Wakeman had a pulse and was given cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and she heard him say "Joey" two times. She said a co-worker took her to the hospital, where she saw the couple for the last time and was given their belongings, including Joanna Wakeman's purse, in plastic bags.

The Wakemans' surviving children are represented by the Reardon Law Firm, which specializes in civil litigation, and whose attorneys have been closely following the criminal case.

k.florin@theday.com

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