More than two years later, questions on deadly crash remain

  • A picture of the truck teenagers Trevor Gonyer, Aaron Hodgdon and Ben Cook was riding in when the vehicle rolled over in Weare on July 3, 2015, ejecting all three and killing Gonyer. Courtesy

  • Trevor Gonyer. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 3/10/2018 11:35:17 PM

The day Dunbarton teen Trevor Gonyer died, Stephanie Burke called his phone dozens of times.

Burke, a Goffstown High School student at the time, knew her friend was dead. Her baby sister had told her, “bawling her eyes out,” the morning of July 3, 2015, hours after Gonyer was taken to Concord Hospital.

It seemed impossible that Gonyer – a boy Burke described as a “ladies man,” with a big heart and a goofy sense of humor – was gone.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said in a recent interview. “It didn’t feel real.” Later, Burke and other friends of Gonyer would drive to the crash scene to pay respects.

Katie Parks, a New Boston resident, found out Gonyer had died around the same as Burke through countless Facebook posts praying Gonyer would rest in peace.

“It was hard,” she said, a long pause proceeding her words. 

Dropped charges

Since charges against Ben Cook were dropped in March 2017, officials have been tight-lipped about discussing the July 3, 2015, car crash that ended Gonyer’s life.

It’s unclear if the case will ever be resolved. The situation has left those who were close to Gonyer, as well as some who knew Cook, sad and frustrated. 

New Hampshire state police Sgt. Christopher Storm placed the blame on Cook, one of three boys in a truck that rolled over on Route 114, ejecting the three boys, as well as a dog named “Leo.”  He based his findings on the fact that Cook was injured primarily on his left side, and Hodgdon was injured on his right side, as well as witness testimony that placed Cook in the driver’s seat.

Cook was charged with negligent homicide, aggravated driving while intoxicated and driving after license suspension from the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office, but those charges were dropped after Cook’s attorney said the prosecutors couldn’t prove who was behind the wheel.

Public defender Julian Jefferson argued that the teens had been transported to a hospital before he arrived, making it impossible for Storm to study how all three had landed after being ejected. He also noted Storm – a full-time member of the N.H. State Police Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Unit – had no formal training in rollover crashes and multiple ejections or in forensic pathology.

The case file now sits in storage at the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office.

"We don't think we can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt who was driving," County Attorney Dennis Hogan said from his office.

Sgt. Storm’s report notes that “no vehicle, highway or environmental factors were identified as being contributory” to the crash. He declined to comment further, saying the case was still open for investigation.

Storm’s report did not evaluate whether New Boston police Officer Stephen Case violated his department’s pursuit policies by following the truck across town lines. 

The investigation followed the facts and centered on solving who was driving the truck, not the officer’s conduct. Using an analogy, Hogan said an investigator wouldn’t look for ice, or a fallen tree as a factor in a crash without supporting evidence.

“Does that mean they investigated for ice or for downed trees? Such a question does not conform to how an investigation works,” he wrote. “They followed the facts which do not include ice or downed trees,” Hogan said. “We know this because there is nothing in the police report about ice or downed trees.”

Hogan went on to say investigations can miss things if they’re done incorrectly or poorly, but that’s why State Police, who he said has the most resources and is, therefore, expected to do the best investigation of a major automobile accident, handled the case.

But for New Boston police Chief James Brace, there is no doubt that the person responsible is Cook.

“I believe the person responsible was the person who was charged,” he said in a recent interview. “I trust the state police conducted a thorough investigation and identified the right person. I have no reason to believe otherwise.” 

Although Brace refused to comment further on the July 3, 2015, car crash, he spoke freely about his department’s pursuit policy. 

He said defining a pursuit is tricky because a pursuit requires following time and the acknowledgment of the driver that they are being followed. However, Brace wouldn’t define what would he would consider acknowledgment, saying that is dependent upon the officer.

“I’ve followed people for up to two miles and they had no clue I was behind them, and I’m chirping the siren and I’ve got the blue lights going,” Brace said. “...When a driver acknowledges their presence and then continues to take evasive action, that really initiates your pursuit.”

In his communication with dispatchers, Case said the driver of the truck saw him and took action: 

“He did indicate with his brake lights that he saw me, but he’s increasing his speed,” he said. Case also reported losing sight of the truck at least twice.

Brace also wouldn’t define what he would consider a high-speed pursuit, saying that was also subjective and dependent on environmental factors.

“I think the facts speak for themselves,” he said. 

Those left behind

For Gonyer’s friends and family, the lack of answers has been frustrating.

Burke remembers becoming close to Gonyer after spending the whole day together at a pig roast. Sometimes, during the school day, Gonyer would swing by her class, and they’d take a stroll together.

Parks said she also met Gonyer during high school. He used to comfort her when she was having a hard time in school. “Not many people will sit with you to make sure you’re okay,” she said.

Both said the passage of time hasn’t made Gonyer’s death easier.

“I have my days when it’s really hard, and other days when I can get through it,” Parks said.

For Burke, the more time goes by, the harder it is to remember her friend. “I’m starting to lose my memory of him,” she said. “It’s really tough.”

There are some ways people keep Gonyer’s memory alive. The “Ride for Trevor” Facebook page – originally created for a memorial event with the same name – has since become a place where Gonyer’s friends and family share memories or thoughts about him.

The page sees a few posts every couple of weeks. Holidays, or the anniversary of Gonyer’s birthday or death, tend to generate the most comments.

“These last two weeks have been hard,” Parks wrote on Feb. 19. “I’ve found myself trying to hold back the tears from missing you and wishing I could hear your voice, I constantly think of your family hoping they’re staying strong and all the people you who’s life you’ve made an impact … I wish this didn’t happen to you.”

The crash remains a difficult subject for those who knew Cook, too.

Burke remembers Cook. The two were friends – he taught her how to drive a manual transmission, and their group of friends would often go to bonfires, or drive around the back roads of Goffstown and Dunbarton, she said.

“When I first met him, I thought he was a lot of trouble,” Burke said. “But his personality grew on me. He had a big heart.”

Burke’s friendship with Cook made the accusations against him hard to hear.

“At first it made me really angry. ...You always hear this stuff on the news, and you don’t know what to believe,” she said.

Parks said she was also angry, primarily at Cook.

“At first I was glad they were doing something about it,” she said of the charges. “Someone’s mistake cost someone else their life, and they should pay for their mistakes. Sorry’s not going to bring someone’s friend back.”

And when the charges were dropped more than a year ago, Parks said she was even angrier.

“I felt like they weren’t trying to find out what happened,” she said. “...It’s not fair to Trevor’s family. They should know what happened, the justice system should be there for them.”

After the charges were dropped, Burke said she was “numb.” She checked in with Cook for a few months after the crash, but eventually, they lost touch.

Both said it was hard to know what to believe. They heard conflicting stories that put Cook in the driver’s seat, but they also heard he might have switched spots with Hodgdon.

It’s hard to say whether who was driving matters anymore, both said.

“A part of me feels like it’s not the point anymore,” Burke said. “Another part of me wants to find out, to have someone take the blame.”

“There’s probably some people it’s still bugging,” Park said. “...Some people just want to move on. It’s probably always going to bother me.”

Cook declined to comment on this story, but his father, Doug Cook, spoke to the Monitor by telephone from his home in Milford, where Ben Cook lives.

The crash, Doug Cook said, continues to affect his son, both physically and emotionally. 

“It’s a traumatizing thing, to lose your best friend,” Cook said. “He’ll be affected by this for the rest of his life. He has to live with it.”

Cook was frank about his son’s past run-ins with the police, saying there was a history there. He also didn’t shy from the fact that drinking was probably a factor in the crash. Both Ben Cook and Aaron Hodgdon have said they have little to no memory of the events leading up to the crash, although Hodgdon once told an investigator that Cook was the driver.

But Cook said not enough had been done to investigate the incident, or whether Case’s conduct had any influence in it. He found it strange that the truck, traveling at estimated speeds of 85 mph, would lose control on a straight section of road, and not on one of the turns that came before.

Does Cook think his son was driving that night?

“I don’t have the answer to that,” he said. “I’d give anything to know exactly what happened that night. …But it’s like, in order to get that, would you be happy with the results?”

He added: “It’s such a friggin’ waste, that a young man had to die over a tail light.”

Aaron Hodgdon could not be reached for this article. The Gonyer family did not respond to requests for comment. 

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