CLEVELAND— Joshua Gaspar used methadone the day he hit and killed Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Kenneth Velez on Interstate 90.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are not disputing that or that he was driving the car that struck and killed the peace officer.
However, during the first day of testimony Wednesday afternoon in the trial against Gaspar, 37, of Columbia Station, attorneys on both sides of the case painted very different pictures of why the accident took place and what role the pharmaceutical used in the treatment of addiction played in the crash.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Aqueelah Jordan’s opening statement said Gaspar went to a methadone clinic on the east side of Cleveland. There, he received his drug, got back in his car and headed down I-90 in a reckless manner because of his intoxicated state until he struck and killed Velez while the trooper is on the side of the road clocking speeders, she said.
“When (Velez) kissed his family goodbye and went off to do his job, he had no idea what was going to happen,” Jordan said. “He had no idea what the defendant did before driving down the highway.”
But defense attorney John Sinn argued Gaspar, in recovery from a pain pill addiction, went to his doctor to receive his therapeutic dose of methadone. He got back in his car and started driving to his construction job as he had done many times before. When he came upon Velez near the Lakewood and Cleveland border, the trooper was pulling over a car ,and traffic was at a near-standstill. Sinn said Gaspar swerved so he wouldn’t rear-end another car, and that’s when he hit the Lorain resident.
“This was a terrible, terrible, terrible accident,” he said. “… At the end of the day, this was an accident. This accident that happened to Josh could have happened to any one of us.”
Jordan, in her opening statement, claimed Gaspar was driving so fast he was disregarding all traffic laws and in a way that was only beneficial to him. He was impaired, and he wasn’t even supposed to be driving at all because he had a license suspension from Alabama, she said.
But Sinn countered, saying the patrol needed someone to blame for the crash, so the blame rested with his client.
“This methadone is nothing but a red herring, a way to find blame when there is no one to blame,” he said.
The trial is set to last between two and three weeks, something Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Russo repeatedly reminded jurors just before swearing them in. Assistant Prosecutor Blaise Thomas is the lead prosecutor on the case.
Gaspar faces about 10 charges. He already was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and DUI when additional counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, DUI, driving under suspension, tampering with records and falsification were filed in March.
The first trial day included graphic dashboard footage from Velez’s patrol car and testimony from three witnesses, all called by the state to support its case.
The first witness, Trooper Timothy Kay, said he worked at the same Cleveland patrol post as Velez and happened upon the crash on his day off.
“As I’m passing, I didn’t know who it was at the time,” he said. “I saw pants like I wear, gray pants with legs facing me, and they were not moving. … It was right before, and I had no clue. I was hoping it was someone I didn’t know — not that that would have made it any better.”
Kay said he when he saw Velez, he called out to him in disbelief. He then used Velez’s car radio to call dispatch, urging help to arrive sooner and then he went to collect Gaspar’s driver’s license as witnesses pointed him out as the man behind the wheel.
Kay said he was in plain clothes and did not show his badge.
“It caught me off guard that I didn’t say anything to him, and he just handed me his license,” he said. “…It was more emotionless compared to the other people in the area.”
Kay said he didn’t see Gaspar stumble or hear him slur his words, but their interaction was very brief and his only purpose was to identify the driver, not conduct any field sobriety tests or observations. When asked by Sinn if he was aware of the signs and symptoms of shock. Kay said he did not know them.
Two drivers also on I-90 that day testified. They were Jonathan Arroyo, an Apple employee on his way to work, and Keegan Conry, a doctor at Akron General Medical Center who was then a fourth-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University.
Both said they saw the accident and stopped immediately afterwards.
“I saw the point of impact,” Arroyo said. “I’m surprised I stayed in my lane. I saw the trooper fly up in the air in my rearview mirror.”
One of the first on the scene with formal medical training, Conry said Velez was alive in the moments after the crash. He was gasping for breath, a good amount of blood was under him, and he had multiple open factures.
Conry said he did not administer first aid as an off-duty paramedic got to Velez first.
Jurors return at 11 a.m. today to hear more testimony.