Prosecution Rests In South River Market Case

Experts, Police, Witnesses Testified In First Week

Wednesday - The prosecution rested Tuesday afternoon in the involuntary manslaughter case against Phillip Ray Westmoreland after a full week of testimony in Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

The jury, which began its work last Tuesday, heard from experts and witnesses to the events of May 10, 2019, when an explosion at the South River Market led to the deaths of four people. They also listened to a state police interview with Westmoreland just after the explosion.

The trial is scheduled to run through the end of next week.

Westmoreland, who had delivered fuel to the store in the moments prior to the explosion, is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Roger Roberts, the store owner; Roberts’ son Kevin Roberts; Roberts’ granddaughter, Samantha Roberts Lewis; and Paul Ruley. --This week, the prosecution brought in experts to explain possible causes for the South River Market explosion.

One of those experts, Robert McLeman, a mechanical engineer, told the court Monday he traveled to the South River Market crime scene on June 6 to further investigate the cause of the explosion.

McLeman was not permitted by the court to render an opinion on the cause of the explosion, but he did state that if 800 gallons of fuel had spilled into the containment area, as alleged, there would have been a 2.1-inch increase in overall volume – a seemingly noticeable amount.

McLeman told the court that there were plenty of competent ignition sources for the fire within the store. While looking at pictures of the incident, he told the court that the flames seen behind the store point to vapor clouds being built up above the tanks.

During cross examination, McLeman told Westmoreland’s attorney, Robert Dean, that there were two main possibilities. The explosion was either caused by an overfill or the excess accumulation of vapor clouds due to improper ventilation.

The method of filling the tanks at South River Market utilized splash fueling, which is known to create more fumes, he said. Splash fueling fills the tank from the top instead of running fuel to the bottom. The splash creates extra fumes which get displaced and pushed out into the air, said McLeman.

Also on Monday, the cause of death for South River Market owner Roger Roberts was also discussed. Assistant Chief Medical Examiner for the Central District Dr. Jennifer Bowers told the court that Rogers died due to the complications of thermal injuries (burns). Thirty percent of his body was covered with second-degree burns. --An interview of Westmoreland by Virginia State Police the day of the explosion, played in court last Thursday, focused on the fuel delivery driver’s level of attentiveness while filling the tanks that morning.

Virginia State Police Senior Special Agent Mark Austin also testified on his interview with Westmoreland that took place at Webb’s Oil Corp., where he worked.

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 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 on Thursday. 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.

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. --On the first day of testimony last Tuesday, several area residents recounted their visits to the store just prior to the explosion.

Pete Smith delivered his produce to the South River Market that morning, unloading it through the double doors with Roger Roberts’ help. Smith commented on gas fumes: “Rog, that’s burning my eyes!”

Smith said he arrived at 8:55 and was in the store “maybe seven to eight minutes,” and also noticed that Kevin Roberts and Samantha Lewis were in the store.

Smith said he left without seeing the fuel truck, and noted a pickup truck pulling into the market as he left, and a dump truck crossing the railroad tracks.

Smith estimated the explosion came five to seven minutes after he left the store.

Ricky Maybush entered the courtroom using a walker, which he must use after being injured in the explosion.

Maybush said he went down to the South River Market every morning for coffee and to chat with other older folks.

Maybush said he saw the fuel truck with its front end a little out in the road, with no cones out but flashers on. “Two cars couldn’t get through,” Maybush said.

Maybush described the fuel truck driver as standing between the side of the truck and the building looking at the ground or hookups. There was a hose on the ground.

Maybush said he arrived after 9, spoke to Roger Roberts inside the store, bought two cups of coffee, saving one to pour later, and sat out front on the picnic table.

Jeff Staton pulled in after Maybush got coffee, and they talked at the picnic tables for “30-35 minutes,” Maybush estimated. Maybush was not wearing a watch.

“All of a sudden, fumes come in,” Maybush said.

When he went to pour his second coffee, Maybush mentioned the smell.

Maybush told Roger to open more doors up.

Maybush went to leave and cracked the front door, saying goodbye – “that was when it happened,” he said.

The explosion sent him 20-25 feet into his truck, unconscious.

“It was just gone,” Maybush said. Maybush said the truck driver left about five minutes before the explosion happened.

Maybush’s neck and back were full of glass from the door. After the incident, he got a pacemaker and now uses a walker.

Jeff Staton testified that he parked next to Roger Roberts’s truck, and talked to Ricky Maybush for about 15 minutes.

As soon as Staton went inside the market, he smelled gas and told Kevin Roberts.

Roger Roberts said it was not the first time it had happened, Staton said.

Staton told him, “Make sure nobody strikes a match.”

Staton was in the store about five minutes before going outside and talking with two others by the pumps.

Staton said he heard a “big whistling sound,” and the “whole back end of the store sort of blew off.”

Staton was blown backwards.

He described two explosions, t he fi rst b lowing u p the back of the store, the second blowing up the whole store.

He was knocked down by the second explosion, which he says blew Maybush into a truck.

Staton said there was “fire going straight up in the air.”

After moving his truck into the grass away from the flames, Staton said he could hear Roger calling.

He went over towards the front of the store, and found Wayne Rogers trying to move cinderblocks.

The two began “digging Roger out” from where he was covered in cinderblocks with fire coming over their heads, Staton said.

They were able to move Roger to the very right of the building, near the kerosene tanks.

Lloyd Staton, Jeff’s uncle, coming up the road, helped get Roger.

Staton said there were many people standing by with cameras, not helping.

Jeff Staton was injured with a nail in his leg and burns to his forehead and ears.

As Roger Roberts was being taken away, Staton said, “You’re going to be all right,” he responded “Yes.”

The News-Gazette

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