Opposing sides approach plea bargain in Helm case

Greg Masse
Post Independent Staff

RIFLE – Despite another delay Wednesday, both sides in the careless driving case against firefighter Megan Helm indicated they’ve made progress on a potential plea agreement in the case.

Helm was driving a van loaded with 11 firefighters on their way to the Hayman Fire on June 21, 2002, when the van overturned on Interstate 70 near Parachute.

Helm, 21, suffered minor injuries, but four firefighters were killed and a fifth died of injuries three days later.

A trial date was supposed to be set at Wednesday’s hearing, but 9th District prosecutor Jeff Cheney said there are “a few remaining issues to be resolved.”

One of those issues involves the possible plea agreement, in which Helm would plead guilty to lessened charges. If she adheres to her July 16 plea of innocent, a trial date will need to be set at the next hearing, set for Feb. 26.

Another issue slowing progress in the case is that most of the victims, their families and the witnesses live out of state, Cheney said.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Helm’s attorney, John Hugger of Evergreen, said this is the first possibility he’s seen that a trial could be avoided since charges were filed last summer.

Neither Cheney nor Hugger would discuss the terms of a possible plea bargain.

Reports said Helm may have been reaching for something when the van veered onto the median. She overcorrected when she tried to regain control, causing the van to roll four times, ejecting five firefighters.

Helm was charged with 10 counts of careless driving causing death or serious injury.

Garfield County Judge Steve Carter said Helm must appear in person if she is to plead guilty on Feb. 26. He also ruled that a memorandum must be filed by Feb. 12 informing the court if a plea bargain will be sought, so victims can appear at the hearing.

Helm’s other option is to stay with her original plea of innocent. If she stays with that plea, she would not need to show up to court until the trial.

Of the five firefighters killed, the family of Zachary Zigich is the only one still pressing for prosecution of Helm, Cheney said.

The hearing already has been delayed once, while attorneys waited for reports sought under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to provide details about the safety of the 15-passenger Ford Econoline E-350 Super Duty van.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said rollover rates of stretch vans built by U.S. automakers are three times higher than the rate for standard vans, when carrying 10 or more passengers.

“If the information came out and people knew about the dangers, I think this accident might never have happened,” Hugger said.

– With wire reports.

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