CLEARFIELD – Yesterday, the trial got under way for a DuBois woman accused of injuring another woman while driving under the influence and causing an accident on Route 119 in Sandy Township in October of 2012.
Kathryn Marie Bembenic, 31, of DuBois is facing charges of aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI; accidents involving death or personal injury; DUI; and recklessly endangering another person.
The charges against Bembenic stem from an accident that occurred at approximately 5:47 a.m. Oct. 14, 2012. The accident occurred on Route 119 near Stanley Bottom Road.
Judge Paul E. Cherry is presiding over the trial. Clearfield County District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. is prosecuting the case; Bembenic is being represented by defense attorney Ron Collins.
On the date in question, April McClain, now 27, of Stump Creek told jurors she was on her way to work in DuBois. When she approached the intersection of Route 119 and Stanley Bottom Road, she observed headlights.
At first, McClain said she didn’t realize the headlights of the other vehicle were in her lane of travel. She realized seconds later and applied her brakes, not having adequate time to swerve and avoid the oncoming vehicle.
Upon impact McClain said her Chevy Blazer overturned onto its passenger’s side. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident and ended up being positioned backwards in the passenger’s seat.
McClain said her head was near the windshield. Her arm was hanging out the passenger’s side window and trapped by her vehicle. “I was stuck,” she said. “I couldn’t move.”
According to her, a gentleman approached her Blazer and called 9-1-1. When paramedics arrived at the scene, she said they attempted to extricate her numerous ways and it ultimately took them approximately 90 minutes.
McClain said she was transported to a nearby field and then flown to the trauma unit at UPMC Altoona. She said the medical staff explained they wanted to relocate her hip and that they would tell her more after.
“But the pain told me more than the doctors. It was off the charts,” she said. “It was just throbbing, just stabbing.” The next day, McClain said she underwent surgery for her hip fracture; one day after surgery, she started her physical therapy rehabilitation.
After spending four days in the hospital, McClain said she was released but received in-home therapy for six weeks. She also wasn’t permitted to put any weight on her left leg during that timeframe. Afterwards, McClain received 12 weeks of physical therapy outside of her home and also had to change jobs due to the pain from being on her feet all the time.
When asked about the present function of her hip, she said it’s considerably better but not the same as it was prior to the accident. She said every day she experiences discomfort and fears the financial effects of future hip replacements.
Paramedic Amanda Henry, now of the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services, responded to the accident at approximately 5:47 a.m. Oct. 14, 2012 on Route 119. At the time, she was a paramedic for DuBois EMS.
Upon arrival to the scene, she observed McClain’s Blazer overturned and her entrapped inside. She said McClain was complaining about pain, as well as tingling and numbness in her extremities.
Henry said once the fire department arrived at the scene, they stabilized the vehicle. She said they ultimately had to cut McClain out of the vehicle after which she decided it was best to bypass the nearest hospital and have McClain flown directly to a trauma center.
Dr. Jeannette Capella, an emergency surgeon at UPMC Altoona, testified that at approximately 7:45 a.m. Oct. 14, 2012 McClain arrived at UPMC Altoona via medical helicopter.
McClain, she said, complained about pain in the area of her left hip, which appeared deformed. She said McClain’s left leg appeared to be shorter, indicating her hip had been dislocated.
According to Capella, medical staff sedated McClain to relocate her left hip. After that McClain went for a CAT scan, which showed bone particles in her hip joint and prompted them to call in an orthopedic surgeon.
An orthopedic surgeon, Capella said, put the bone particles back and used pins and a plate to permanently relocate McClain’s hip. Capella said McClain completed rehabilitation for a couple months after the accident.
Arresting Officer Curtis Marino of the Sandy Township police responded to the accident that occurred at approximately 5:47 a.m. Oct. 14, 2012 on Route 119. Upon arrival to the scene, he observed a Blazer on its side and a pick-up truck farther off the roadway.
When he approached Bembenic, he immediately smelled the odor of alcohol. He said it was like someone had “dumped beer on her.” She told Marino, “I shouldn’t have been driving.”
Marino asked Bembenic what had occurred to which she said, “I had too much to drink, and I hit that car.” He took her to the flat section of Route 119 for field sobriety testing.
However, Marino testified that after starting the heel and turn, Bembenic told him she was “too drunk” to do so. Marino subsequently asked her to submit to a blood test at the DuBois Regional Medical Center.
According to Marino, Bembenic refused to submit to blood testing at first. After speaking with her father, Marino said Bembenic agreed to the blood testing, which showed her blood alcohol content was 0.217 percent.
Upon further investigation, Marino found McClain had been traveling northbound; Bembenic was wrongly traveling southbound in the same lane as McClain. The accident, he said, occurred approximately 20 feet from Stanley Bottom Road in McClain’s lane of travel on Route 119.
Bembenic took the stand in her own defense. Shortly after her attorney, Collins, started questioning, she became very emotional, stating, “I can’t do this.” Cherry then gave Bembenic time to meet with her attorney and family privately to determine how they would proceed.
A short while later, the court reconvened, and Collins said that Bembenic would continue her testimony. On Oct. 14, 2012, she admitted to being involved in an accident at approximately 5:47 a.m. on Route 119.
Prior to that, she had worked at the Pulaski Club until 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m. After work she drove to the Sandy Club to meet friends and consumed two or three beers. When it closed at 3 a.m., she drove herself to the residence of an acquaintance, where she and her friends planned to stay that night.
According to Bembenic, they were going there to make food and hang out. She didn’t have any intentions on driving after that. While hanging out, she said they started consuming mixed drinks, and she had three or four “Vodka Cranberries.”
At approximately 4:30 a.m., she laid down on the couch to sleep. When she woke up about an hour later, she found her friends weren’t there, and she felt uncomfortable being in the residence alone with a male acquaintance.
Bembenic said when she was leaving the residence, she physically “felt fine” and didn’t feel intoxicated. She admitted to knowing it was wrong to drink and then drive, but she did that morning.
While driving home, she told jurors she didn’t have any problems controlling the pick-up truck she’d borrowed from a family friend the day before. However, she said there weren’t any lights in the control panel for the heater and she couldn’t figure out how to turn the heat on.
“I kept messing with the heater. I would look down, up to the road and then back down,” she said, adding, “It’s stupid when you’re drunk . . . and then it [accident] happened so fast.”
After the accident, Bembenic said she has a vague recollection of the details and the scene that morning was just “a fog.” She said at that point, she wasn’t even aware that someone was hurt.
Days later she said she was “just devastated” over the accident, because it’s not in her nature to intentionally hurt anyone. She said she stopped caring about herself and just wanted McClain to be OK.
“By your own admission, you know you don’t drink and drive, because these things can happen. You said it yourself,” said Shaw when questioning Bembenic. “And, even though you knew that, you still did it.”
Bembenic said she wasn’t trying to dispute the DUI, and it was very irresponsible of her. When asked by Shaw, Bembenic admitted she called her dad while she was at the accident scene. She also admitted she didn’t check on McClain, noting again she wasn’t even aware anyone was hurt at the time.
Timothy Bembenic of DuBois also took the stand in defense of his daughter. When he arrived at the scene, he observed Marino yelling at his daughter where they were off the roadway. Later, when asked by Shaw, Timothy Bembenic said he didn’t find any of Marino’s actions inappropriate.
Marino, he said, administered a field sobriety test, and his daughter took a few steps before they stopped it. “Mind you, she’s injured,” he said. “She was walking with a limp and appeared to be disoriented.” Later at the hospital, he said they discovered his daughter had a visible lump on her head.
After the accident, Timothy Bembenic said his daughter was “absolutely different.” He said she lacked motor skills and wasn’t functionally normally.
In his closing, Collins said this was a “sad and difficult case.” He said it was never the intent of Katheryn Bembenic to hurt McClain.
He also said they weren’t arguing the DUI charge and would accept that verdict from the jury. However, he argued that something else could have caused the accident other than alcohol, such as Kathryn Bembenic fiddling with the heater controls in the pick-up truck.
“It could happen to anyone,” said Collins. “Have you ever been going down Interstate 80 and the next thing you know, you hear the rumble strips. It happens to all of us.”
In closing, Shaw said it wasn’t fair to argue that it could happen to anyone. “That’s bologna,” he said. “. . . Only one person can be held responsible for this terrible crash.
“It’s more than a simple DUI. Someone sustained lifelong injuries for something that they didn’t even do. McClain didn’t do anything wrong. She was in her own lane on her way to work.”
The trial continues today at 11:30 a.m. when Cherry will charge jurors and send them into deliberations.