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Carrollton Bus Crash - Mahoney trial drew attention of the nation for 17 days

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By The Staff

Landmark News Service

For 17 days in 1989, the eyes of the nation were focused on the Wheeler Hall of Justice in Carrollton, Ky., as an Owen County man was put on trial for charges related to the May 14, 1988, bus crash that killed 27 people – 24 of them children.

Larry Mahoney faced dozens counts of manslaughter, assault and wanton endangerment stemming from the crash, in which his pickup truck smashed head-on with the bus on Interstate 71, just inside the Carroll County border.

Mahoney, with a 0.24 blood-alcohol level, was driving on the wrong side of the highway when his truck collided with the bus, which was loaded with children and adults from the First Assembly of God from Radcliff, Kentucky.

The collision ruptured a fuel tank and the bus to burst into flames; along with the 27 dead, 34 others were severely injured. Only six passengers escaped with minor injuries.

The media coverage was intense. During the high-profile trial, Circuit Court Judge Charlie Satterwhite made sure everything went smoothly.

First, certain details had to be worked out before the case could go before a jury. One issue centered on if Mahoney could get a fair trial in Carroll County. According to published reports, neither side asked for a change of venue; Satterwhite believed Mahoney would receive a fair trial in Carrollton.

Another issue centered on the bus, itself. Defense attorney William Summers sought to base much of his case on the condition of the 1977 Ford B-700 bus that, according to James S. Kunen’s book “Reckless Disregard,” the church had purchased from the Meade County School District. Summers hoped to convince the jury that faulty manufacturing led to the fire and, ultimately, the deaths and injuries; he wanted to prove that Mahoney, while he was drunk at the time of the accident, should not be held responsible for the deadly fire.

In the days following the crash, the state medical examiner determined that none of the victims was killed by the impact of the crash, but rather died as a result of the fire and smoke that spread so quickly throughout the vehicle.

Satterwhite allowed Summers argument, and deemed the evidence regarding the manufacture of the bus admissible during the trial.

The trial got under way on Nov. 9, 1989. Security inside and outside the courtroom was tight. The first order of business was to select a jury. The 12-member panel and three alternates would be selected from a pool of 300 potential jurors.

The trial was difficult for everyone involved, especially for Judge Satterwhite, who died in 1997 of infection following a double-lung transplant, and his wife, Paula. The couple also had a 2-year-old daughter, Sara.

The judge’s widow, who later remarried and is now Paula Piper, said the family received death threats during the trial. Piper said she didn’t know where the threats came from, but said the threats made each day more stressful. Daily, Kentucky State Police troopers would stop in at her place of her employment and her daughter’s daycare center – both located in Carrollton – to check on them.

The Mahoney case was not Satterwhite’s first time dealing with tragic drunken-driving cases. According to Kunens’ book, shortly after the bus crash in 1988, a young girl was killed by a drunken driver while walking down a sidewalk in Carrollton. Jeffery Gill pled guilty to reckless homicide, and Satterwhite sentenced him to five year’s probation.

Then, in July 1989, Robert Chowning was driving drunk when he struck and killed three people along a Carroll County road. Satterwhite sentenced Chowning to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole for 27 years.

Many of the details that came out during the trial were gruesome. The testimony of the survivors and the pictures that were used in court were graphic and hard to look at. According to Piper, Satterwhite lost a great deal of weight during those six weeks.

“My role was to have a nice meal when he came home at night,” Piper said, adding that her husband would then spend his evenings playing with their daughter. Piper recalls she and her late husband playing gin rummy each night in attempt to keep things as normal as possible.

“We would play to see who did the dishes,” she recalled.

The judge allowed only one camera in the courtroom, and any images taken during the trial were to be shared by the media outlets attending the proceedings.

Piper related that one day, while a witness was giving testimony, the cameraman was attempting to change the tape in the camera and made just enough noise to be a distraction. That evening, she recalled, Satterwhite told her it he took everything he had to not slam down his gavel and order the camera out of the courtroom. Piper said that was an example of how much her husband wanted to make sure that everything about the trial was done right, and to eliminate distractions.

After listening to witness after witness and hearing from Mahoney himself, the jury began deliberations on Dec. 21. According to an article in the New York Times published that day, Satterwhite told jurors they would be sequestered in a nearby motel until a verdict was reached.

The jury returned with its verdict just 11 hours later.

Mahoney was found guilty on 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter, 12 counts of first-degree assault and 27 counts of wanton endangerment. The jury recommended 16 years in prison. Satterwhite, who by law could not increase the sentence, accepted the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Mahoney to 16 years, with a chance for parole after eight years. Defense attorneys tried to persuade Satterwhite to reduce the sentence to probation, to no avail.

Throughout the trial, Satterwhite did his best to avoid being in the media spotlight, Piper said. “He didn’t like publicity. He tried to stay away from it.”

The judge did make a television appearance following the trial: He appeared on “The Maury Povich Show,” the topic of which was jurors who were involved in high-profile cases.

The show’s producers contacted Satterwhite after learning that he had gone to great lengths to help jurors deal with the stress and graphic nature of the case. Satterwhite had brought in Dr. Roger Bell, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavoiral Science at the University of Louisville, to debrief them after the trial.

One of the jurors from the case, Elaine Stevenson, appeared on the show and also praised Satterwhite for doing his best to shield the jurors from the media crush.

Mahoney served nearly 11 years of his 16-year sentence. He was released from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky., on Sept. 1, 1999. He continues to live in Owen County. He does not give interviews to the media.

Judge Satterwhite had a double-lung transplant in 1997, and in the months that followed worked hard to promote organ donation. He died from an infection on Dec. 15 that year. He was 50.

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.