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Trial witnesses describe scene surrounding fatal wreck

Dennis Brown was heading south on the Seward Highway one evening last November when, just as he was passing Potter Marsh, he spotted a pair of headlights headed right at him.

The other vehicle was going north. But it was in his lane, for traffic leaving Anchorage.

"The first time I saw it, I thought it was a very bold, aggressive passing maneuver," Brown testified Tuesday in the Anchorage murder trial of Lori Phillips.

On Nov. 5, 2009, prosecutors say, Phillips, now 56, was driving drunk when she ended up in the wrong lane of the Seward Highway and slammed head-on into a small Toyota sedan driven by Louis Clement, 23. The man died at the scene. His passenger, who was his fiance, was seriously injured and is expected to testify today.

Brown was one of at least two or three drivers who dodged the errant vehicle, which he later determined was a white Ford Explorer. He told jurors he pulled his own Ford Explorer onto the shoulder and right up to the guardrail. The wrong-way driver almost ran into him anyway, Brown testified.

"The car passed me and, as I was thanking God that she missed me, I heard a collision noise behind me." He called 911.

Phillips is a twice-convicted drunken driver with a revoked license. In court, she looked thin, even frail. Her hands were shackled in front of her as security officers escorted her into the courtroom. They took off the cuffs before jurors could see.

'SOMETHING WAS NOT RIGHT'

Several people attempted to get Phillips off the road that day, according to trial testimony.

After she spent an afternoon at a Midtown hair salon, her longtime stylist tried to pull her out of her SUV and offered to call her a cab. But Phillips drove away, saying she needed to get home to her daughter. The stylist called 911.

Phillips lived off Potter Valley Road. The turnoff from the Seward Highway is just south of Potter Marsh. Heading south initially, Phillips may have missed her turn, police say. It was getting close to 6 p.m. and already dark.

At Mile 115, a state Department of Transportation worker at the Potter weigh station saw a white SUV driving south but in one of the two northbound lanes, the one closer to the weigh station.

"Something was not right there," David Parker, a commercial vehicle enforcement officer for 20 years who has since retired, told jurors.

The SUV pulled slowly into the weigh station parking area, then went into the shallow ditch between the parking lot and the highway, Parker said as prosecutor Clinton Campion questioned him. The driver backed out of the ditch and drove over a cone that the DOT used to mark the scales for commercial vehicles. The SUV stopped in the parking lot for a moment or two, then pulled out, now heading north toward Anchorage.

By then, Parker was on the phone with dispatchers.

"I felt that I had an impaired driver there that needed to be stopped," he told jurors.

Paul Kupferschmid, a pastor from Kasilof who was headed to Providence Alaska Medical Center to visit a patient, told jurors that a vehicle pulled out from the weigh station in front of him. He was headed north on the Seward Highway. So was the vehicle in question. But it moved over into the southbound lane.

"I saw two or three cars at least have to take to the shoulder of the road and barely miss the vehicle," Kupferschmid said. He said he grabbed his cell phone to call 911.

Then he saw the crash.

Kupferschmid, Brown and other drivers all stopped to help the injured as they waited for police and medics. But there wasn't much they could do.

The wrecked Explorer was in the middle of the road. The driver was moaning.

The wrecked Toyota was off the road, hidden in the grass in the ditch on the Cook Inlet side of the highway, Brown said. Kupferschmid said he checked the driver for a pulse and found none.

The passenger, later identified as Joyua Stovall, was screaming, the witnesses told jurors. There was a car seat in the Toyota but the couple's infant wasn't with them that day.

A CONFUSED DRIVER

The first Anchorage police officer at the scene was John Bolen. He told jurors that he tried to talk to the driver of the wrecked Ford Explorer but found her to be disoriented and lethargic. He noted that the license plate matched the one called in on the earlier impaired-driver report.

"She thought she was at her home," Bolen testified as prosecutor Sharon Marshall questioned him. Phillips' eyes were bloodshot and watery, Bolen told jurors. But all he could smell was the stink of the deployed air bag.

Another police officer at the crash site was Earl Ernest. He told jurors that he followed the ambulance carrying Phillips to the Alaska Native Medical Center to gather evidence. He said he watched a technician draw her blood and brought the samples to the police evidence room.

Phillips told him she didn't remember the crash or driving that day, but she also said she had gone to the Huffman Post Office and was headed home, spelling her street name for him, Ernest told jurors.

Phillips acknowledged she had been drinking, Ernest testified. She said she had had two or three Heineken beers at home. But the prosecution suggests she drank much more. Her blood-alcohol level was .328, more than four times the legal limit, Campion has said. One of her hair stylists testified that she brought a stainless steel travel mug into the salon that day.

Ernest said he asked Phillips to rate her level of intoxication on a scale of 1 to 10. She put it at 5, he said, and she acknowledged she shouldn't have been driving. She said she couldn't think of anyone to get a ride from, the officer testified.

Defense lawyer Rex Butler tried to pick apart Ernest's testimony. He asked the officer repeatedly whether she could have suffered a head injury. Ernest said he wasn't a doctor but didn't think she had. Butler questioned the procedure used for drawing Phillips' blood, which Ernest described as unusual because the sample was taken from her leg, not her arm, and because of the type of needle and syringe used. But Ernest also said the sample was good.

Phillips suffered a broken arm and lacerated liver in the wreck, Ernest acknowledged as Butler questioned him.

Butler contends Phillips' behavior doesn't amount to murder.

The prosecution will continue to put on its case today. The trial will be in recess Thursday for Veterans Day as well as on Friday and will resume next week.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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