Crash witness takes stand

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2004

Tempers flared somewhat Thursday morning as testimony in the Jamie Petterson murder trial resumed after being interrupted by debates over legal issues for a day and a half.

James Olson, a witness to the 2002 car crash on the Seward Highway in which an Anchorage couple was killed, wrangled verbally with Petterson's defense attorney Chuck Robinson during questioning.

Petterson is being tried for second-degree murder for allegedly causing the deaths of Robert Weiser, 60, and Donna Weiser, 56, of Anchorage, in a fiery crash near Bertha Creek on Oct. 12, 2002.

According to Alaska State Troopers, Petterson and a passenger, Jonathan Douglas, were watching an in-dash DVD movie in Petterson's northbound Ford pickup, and the vehicle crossed the centerline into oncoming traffic, hitting the Weisers' southbound Jeep Grand Cherokee head-on.

The Jeep burst into flames and passersby, including Olson, were able to pull Donna Weiser's body from the vehicle, but not Robert Weiser's. Both died at the scene. Petterson and Douglas were injured but not seriously.

Olson, owner of Jim's Towing, testified that he was driving north toward Anchorage the day of the crash when he saw Petterson's white pickup in his rearview mirror coming up fast behind him.

According to Olson, it looked like the pickup crossed the centerline, the driver realized it and started trying to correct its direction of travel, but began fishtailing and went out of control, colliding with the Weisers' Jeep.

He said the Weisers' vehicle had crossed as far as it could across the fogline on the southbound side of the highway attempting to avoid the crash, Olson said. The Jeep was as close to the ditch as possible.

The collision occurred across the fogline, he said.

When Robinson began questioning Olson on Thursday, the attorney calculated how far Olson's vehicle was from the crash site at the time of impact.

Robinson based his arithmetic on Olson's testimony to a grand jury that he had his cruise control set on 70 mph and Petterson's pickup was one-eighth to one-quarter mile behind him when he first noticed him in the mirror.

Olson estimated he was about five seconds ahead of the pickup.

"You were more than a car length ahead?" asked Robinson.

"Yes," said Olson.

"At 70 mph, you were going about 100 feet per second?" asked Robinson.

"You did the math. If you say so," said Olson.

Robinson then asked whether Olson told troopers he saw both vehicles attempt to avoid the collision.

"The truck was out of control. The Jeep tried to avoid the truck," Olson said.

The lawyer again asked if Olson told troopers if both vehicles tried to take evasive action.

"I don't believe so," said Olson.

As Robinson continued, Olson became visibly irritated by the questioning, and when Robinson asked if it was possible that the Jeep had traveled into the northbound lane, Olson snapped, "Yeah, it's possible a dog ran out, too."

The defense attorney then played a video recorded from inside a car traveling at 70 mph on the Seward Highway near Bertha Creek and asked Olson to pick out the spot where he was when he saw the collision.

"Is that approximately where you were when you saw the accident?" asked Robinson.

"I can't pick it out on the video," Olson said.

Robinson, referring to his earlier arithmetic calculation, then asked Olson to count to five as the video played, to determine the spot where his vehicle came to a stop.

Olson refused to cooperate, but Robinson counted for him while the video played. Again, Olson said he could not pick out the spot from the video.

Olson also testified that, after seeing the crash, he turned his vehicle around and went back to see if he could help.

He turned on the emergency light bar on top of his vehicle to warn other motorists and first went to Petterson's pickup. He said he instinctively reached in to see if the occupants had a pulse and Petterson "came to."

"He had a bloody nose. The passenger seemed more alert," Olson said.

He then went to the Jeep and tried to put out a small fire under the engine with an extinguisher, first from beneath the Jeep and then through the engine compartment, but the flames erupted.

He went to the passenger side, unbuckled Donna Weiser's seat belt and pulled her out. She had no pulse.

"The driver was obviously pinned, and the Jeep became fully engulfed," he said.

Olson had started testifying in Petterson's trial Monday afternoon and was to resume on Tuesday, but called in sick.

Assistant District Attorney June Stein then substituted Trooper Lt. Lee Oly, one of the investigators who examined evidence from the crash, and Stein called Douglas to testify, but he refused.

In opening arguments, Stein told jurors that Douglas called his ex-wife from an Anchorage hospital and told her, "We were zoned out. We were watching a DVD."

Douglas claims he never said anything of the sort and told an investigating grand jury he and Petterson were listening to a music disc, not watching a movie. A trooper interviewing Douglas reportedly threatened him with 12 years in prison for charges of perjury, hindering the prosecution and evidence tampering.

Douglas decided to not testify in order to avoid self-incrimination and subsequently was charged with contempt of court.

Superior Court Judge Charles Cranston ordered him to return to court at 1:30 p.m. today, and if he continues to refuse to testify, he might be sent to jail. The trial is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m.

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