Driver's Interview With Police Played During South River Market Trial

By 
Bronson Winslow
Trial Gets Underway In South River Case

THE DEFENDANT in the South River Market explosion case, Phillip Ray Westmoreland (right), sits beside his attorney, Robert Dean, during a break in the jury selection process Monday. (Bronson Winslow photo)

Friday - An interview between Virginia State Police and Phillip Ray Westmoreland, played in court yesterday, Aug 18, shed light on the events leading up to the South River Market explosion on May 10, 2019.

 

As the trial for Westmoreland, who faces charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the explosion, began its fourth day Thursday, Virginia State Police Senior Special Agent Mark Austin was called to testify on his interview with Westmoreland following the incident.

Taking place at Webb’s Oil Corp., the interview focused on Westmoreland’s level of attentiveness while filling the tanks at the South River Market. Throughout the interview, Westmoreland refers to the South River Market tanks as 6,000-gallon tanks, yet the tanks were only 3,000 gallons a piece.

According to the comments he made in the interview, Westmoreland filled the tank to the rim. He told investigators he put 65 inches of fuel in the tank, yet according to his chart book, a 3,000-gallon tank can only hold 64 inches of fuel.

Westmoreland repeatedly referred to the tanks as 6,000-gallon tanks throughout the interview, and even requested to look at the chart book to confirm that 6,000 was correct. Special Agent Austin told the court he did not figure out the tanks held 3,000 gallons tanks until he visited the crime scene the day after the explosion.

Laurence Miller, a Webb’s Oil company employee, testified that the company prohibits drivers from filling tanks past 90 percent. According to Westmoreland’s interview with Austin, he filled the tanks past 100 percent.

Previous concerns relating to Westmoreland’s cell phone usage were also discussed by Virginia State Police during the fourth day of the trial. During the interview, Agent Austin had asked Westmoreland if he was using his phone while filling the tanks.

On multiple occasions, Westmoreland denied being on his phone at all, but eventually said he “may have sent a text” before unloading, said Austin. Based on text records received by Virginia State Police, Westmoreland was on his phone at 8:19 a.m., but did not use his phone during the 30-minute filling period. His next phone usage was at 8:49 a.m.

Special Agent Austin also testified that Westmoreland was speaking in generalizations during the interview. Simple yes and no question were avoided with ambiguous answers, and during his recap of events, he never mentioned referencing the use of his chart book that day.

The South River Market trial is expected to continue for two more weeks with many other witnesses and experts being called.

Aug. 17 - The prosecution and the defense outlined their cases Tuesday morning as the trial for the man accused of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deadly 2019 South River Market explosion got underway.

It had taken a full day on Monday to narrow down a pool of nearly 100 prospective jurors to 12 jurors and two alternatives. The trial is scheduled for two weeks in Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

Phillip Ray Westmoreland is accused of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the explosion that took four lives on May 10, 2019: Roger Roberts, 69, the South River Market owner; Roberts’ son, Kevin Roberts, 44; Roberts’ granddaughter, Samantha Roberts Lewis, 27; and Paul Ruley, 54.

In opening arguments Tuesday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jared Moon and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Lester stated that the explosion was the direct result of criminal negligence by Westmoreland, who had just delivered fuel to the store that morning.

Moon told the court that over 800 extra gallons of fuel were added to the tank, which resulted in large quantities of fuel spilling out of the tank. Moon addressed the jury and asked them, “What happens when 800 gallons of conventional gasoline is spilled and abandoned in a large, open aired, above ground tank?”

, “The answer shouldn’t be surprising,” he said.

The commonwealth’s opening statement described Westmoreland as a highly capable professional who neglected proper safety protocols to finish his job.

According to court evidence, Westmoreland was scheduled for vacation after his shift, and the prosecutors pointed at the vacation as a possible reason for criminal negligence. They also stated that Westmoreland was using his phone while filling the tanks.

Though the commonwealth is pushing for criminal negligence, Westmoreland’s attorney, Robert Dean, argued that his client was not negligent, and the explosion was simply the result of a terrible accident.

Westmoreland is paid weekly and not by delivery. He would have no reason to rush through a job to go on vacation, said Dean. The amount of fuel placed in the tank was requested by the store owner, Roger Roberts, and had nothing to do with Westmoreland.

Roberts wife, Hazel Roberts, told the court Tuesday morning that her husband had been ordering gas for many years and he always paid attention to safety and detail.

According to Hazel Roberts, Roger Roberts was standing with Westmoreland as he filled the tanks before the explosion.

In earlier interviews, Westmoreland had told police that he was not on his phone that morning, but his phone records showed that he was, said prosecutors. Though Westmoreland was on his phone, Dean said, time stamped text messages show that he was not using his phone during the time he was actively filling the tanks – only before and after.

On the day of the explosion, off-duty Virginia State Trooper Dennis Taylor and his friend Chason Bradley stopped at the South River Market on their way to go fishing. During their testimonies Tuesday morning, both denied smelling gas inside the store, yet stated they saw a dark muddy water shooting out of the tanks as they left the parking lot.

After pulling over to investigate, neither individual smelled gas so they continued to their fishing spot. About 10 minutes later, a large boom shook the ground. They would eventually find out that the boom was the explosion from the South River Market.

Around the same time on May 10, Kevin Lalone was traveling by the South River Market and noticed Westmoreland’s truck was sticking out into the road. Lalone told the court Tuesday morning that there were not any cones or safety measure for other vehicles.

As he drove by, he could see a dark liquid shooting out of the gas tanks behind the store. He believed the tanks were being cleaned and continued on his way to work. After hearing what happened, Lalone contacted Virginian State Police and told them what he saw.

As the trial continues, both the commonwealth and defense said they will be bringing in specialists and engineers to help explain what possibly could have caused the explosion -- State Police announced the day following the incident, May 11, 2019, that the investigation of the incident would be treated as a criminal investigation because the cause of the fire was unknown.

Search warrants in the days following the fire revealed that the Virginia State Police was investigating the 8:45 a.m. delivery to the South River Market from Webb’s Oil Corporation. After its investigation, the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations supplied its investigative files to the Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office in December of 2019.

Moon then petitioned the Rockbridge County Circuit Court to impanel a special grand jury to continue with the investigation.

The special grand jury, delayed by the pandemic, met for three consecutive days behind closed doors and indicted Westmoreland in March 2021 on the four counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Westmoreland faces a maximum of 40 years imprisonment for his alleged crimes.

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