Greenfield police sergeant pleads not guilty to vehicular homicide

  • Sgt. James B. Rode was driving 83 mph down High Street, in a 30 mph zone, when he crashed his police cruiser into a car turning from Sanderson Street onto High Street, according to the DA. RECORDER FILE/Paul Franz

  • Massachusetts State Trooper Joseph Ballou and ADA Steven Gagne leave Franklin Justice Center on Wednesday after the arraignment of Greenfield Police Sgt. James Rode on charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/25/2018 9:51:14 AM

GREENFIELD — The driver killed in a collision with a city police cruiser last October could not have seen the cruiser speeding 83 mph down High Street, according to State Police investigators, who said police Sgt. James Rode was traveling at a rate of speed “far greater than reasonable and proper.”

Rode, 48, in a brief arraignment, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Greenfield District Court to charges of negligent motor vehicle homicide and speeding in connection with the Oct. 1 crash.

Police and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office have been relatively quiet on the case, but following the arraignment Wednesday, details of the investigation by the Massachusetts State Police became available.

In the report, Trooper Joseph Ballou offers a reconstruction of the accident and the erratic operation call to which Rode was responding at the time, and he explains why he believes Rode should be charged with vehicular homicide.

The crash led to the death of James Arcellana, 29, of Hinsdale, N.H., and serious but non-fatal injuries to the passenger. Rode was also injured.

Ballou states in his report that Rode was driving at a speed, 83 mph in a 30-mph zone, that endangered lives.

“Although Sgt. Rode was on duty and responding to an urgent call, he failed to exercise proper caution or show due regard for the safety of other persons and property,” Ballou writes. “Moreover, there were two patrol officers on duty who were in closer proximity to the reported erratic operator than he was, thereby lessening the urgency of his response. Sgt. Rode operated his vehicle negligently at a speed that endangered the lives and safety of the public, and his negligent operation led to the crash which caused the death of Mr. Arcellana.”

What happened on that day, as explained by Ballou, stemmed from Rode and two other Greenfield police officers responding to a call for erratic operation on Routes 5 and 10 near the town line with Deerfield.

Around 8:05 p.m., State Police’s Shelburne Control received a call from an off-duty police officer out of Montague reporting an erratic driver in the direction of Greenfield. The call was reported as “urgent.”

Rode and another officer left from the Greenfield police station on High Street. The other officer left first, while Rode spoke with a Greenfield dispatcher to gather more information. Another officer was heading to this call, after leaving a traffic stop on Mill Street.

Rode then left, putting on his emergency lights to his “low-profile” black Ford Explorer cruiser, which does not have an overhead light. He called the off-duty Montague officer, whom he knows personally, to gather more information, but got the officer’s voicemail, according to the court documents.

Driving down High Street, Rode accelerated to 83 mph and was going that speed anywhere between one and five seconds before the crash, Ballou states, based on the State Police reconstruction, which used data from the cruiser.

Seeing the oncoming car off Sanderson Street, driven by Arcellana, Rode was able to slow to 63 mph just before impact, the report states. Rode reportedly also tried to swerve left to avoid a crash.

Based off these speeds, the State Police investigators were able to determine that Rode’s cruiser was “579 feet north of the crash and would not have been within Mr. Arcellana’s line of sight, although the cruiser’s emergency lights would have cast a reflection on the overhead power lines.”

Neither Rode nor Arcellana were wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash, according to the report. Arcellana died on Oct. 4, after being brought to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, due to what a medical examiner determined was blunt force trauma to the head.

Neither Rode nor Arcellana were on their cell phones at the time, the report states.

The report includes facts provided by the passenger, who survived the crash. The passenger told State Police what he recalled prior to the crash at the intersection of High and Sanderson streets, near Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

The passenger said he remembers an ambulance going north on High Street and turning into the hospital and a police cruiser, going south, passing by. The cruiser, which Ballou states was the officer who left before Rode to respond to the urgent erratic operation call, was going about 40 to 50 mph, based on a conversation with that officer.

It was then Arcellana pulled into the intersection, the passenger told police.

Motor vehicle homicide is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 2½ years in prison and carries a 15-year loss of a driver’s license if convicted.

The sergeant, who is represented by lawyer Timothy Duggan of Norwood, will be back Oct. 18 for his next date in district court.

Rode and his attorney left court without commenting to reporters, as did Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh, who attended the court proceeding of his sergeant who has been on injured-on-duty status since the crash. The day before, Haigh issued a statement posted exclusively to the department’s Facebook page, saying, “Our thoughts are with all those who continue to be affected by this tragic event, and I ask for patience with regard to this ongoing matter.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.


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