The director of MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts will face charges related to a fatal collision with a motorcyclist last summer.
Joseph Thompson, 59, has been MASS MoCA’s director since the museum opened in 1999. Police say on July 20th, 2018, a car Thompson was driving in North Adams collided with local motorcyclist Steven Fortier, 49, who was killed. Now, almost a year later, Thompson is set to be arraigned on a misdemeanor charge of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation – as well as a marked lanes violation – in Northern Berkshire District Court on June 19th. The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of two and half years behind bars.
North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood told WAMC that after a May 9th hearing, the court found that there was “probable cause to issue a complaint.” He confirmed that the investigation found that alcohol was “not a factor” for Thompson in the crash.
Wood attributed the long wait between the crash and the charge to the number of agencies involved in the investigation, including the North Adams Police Department, state police detectives assigned to the District Attorney’s Office, and state troopers from the Crime Scene Service Section and the Collision Analysis Reconstruction Section. Wood said unless the Berkshire District Attorney’s office says otherwise, the investigation is now closed.
MASS MoCA released a statement Thursday saying its board and staff “stand with Director Joe Thompson while he resolves this deeply unfortunate personal matter.” The museum directed all further questions to Thompson’s attorney, Timothy Shugrue.
Shugrue told WAMC Thursday that his client was pleading not guilty, and that he planned to make a motion for the case to be dismissed.
“There was some confusion regarding the accident reconstruction, both by North Adams and the state police," said the lawyer. "Some initial reports in the police reports were incorrect. The police officer had written the wrong direction – southbound versus northbound – in his original police report, which is what the state police relied upon.”
Shugrue says Thompson did everything in his power to avoid the collision at the corner of Church Street and Ashland Street that night in July. He says the motorcyclist, Fortier, overshot the corner and came into oncoming traffic at “a high rate of speed.”
“When he sees that motorcycle as a bullet coming straight at him, he veered to the left instead of to the right," said Shugrue. "The right had trees and mailboxes, he couldn’t go that way. He veered to the left to avoid a head-on collision. It’s my belief that if he hadn’t done that, his passenger would have been severely injured if not killed herself because that motor vehicle was coming right at him. He made an evasive maneuver, the motorcycle hit him on the side of the vehicle, causing him to be ejected from the motorcycle and eventually he died.”
Shugrue claimed that Fortier’s blood alcohol level was at .28, well over the state’s legal limit of .08. Chief Wood confirmed that alcohol was found in Fortier’s system, but said “to what extent it contributed, I cannot speculate on.”
The motorcyclist was reportedly last seen leaving the Mohawk Tavern before the accident.
Shugrue says Thompson is still suffering from trauma from the incident.
“Even on that night, he was very distraught," said Shugrue. "He was crying, he was upset, he went over, he tried to assist the motorcyclist. It was an awful situation. The police even noted he was very upset. They told him to go home, relax. He’s obviously been upset the 11 months it’s taken to have this investigation go on, again another reason that we’re questioning why did it take so long because again, it’s confirmed, he’s cooperated with the police from day one. Gave them the car, gave them the cell phone, gave them anything that they wanted. Completely cooperated.”
Shugrue says that there is no question of Thompson maintaining his position at MASS MoCA, which as usual has a busy summer scheduled as it celebrates two decades.
“He’s innocent until proven guilty and he hasn’t done anything wrong," said the attorney. "I can’t see any reason why anybody would second guess his position at MASS MoCA. He’s done a wonderful job there. He’s an excellent person, he’s an excellent employee, and I know at the end that this will come out positively for him.”
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.