His constant walking isn’t by choice. William Senne’s driver’s license was suspended in 2011, when he was indicted on a charge of motor vehicle homicide in the death of a state trooper whose car he slammed into eight years earlier while driving drunk.
Trooper Ellen Engelhardt suffered severe brain damage in 2003 after Senne, then 18, hit her parked cruiser in the breakdown lane of Route 25 in Wareham. At 50, Engelhardt was left in a permanent vegetative state, unable to walk or talk. She died in 2011.
In 2005, six years before Englehardt’s death, Senne pleaded guilty to causing bodily injury while driving drunk and to reckless endangerment. He served 2½ years at the Plymouth County House of Correction....
But now, Senne faces a vehicular homicide charge stemming from Englehardt’s June 1, 2011, death. Prosecutors took the unusual step of seeking the vehicular homicide indictment even though he had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge before Englehardt died....
The threat of a 15-year sentence for vehicular homicide terrifies Senne, who, if he weren’t at his desk wearing a crisp, white shirt and red striped tie, could still pass as a teenager. After years of silence about the accident, Senne agreed to talk to the Globe about that night, his life in the years after, and his decision in 2005 to plead guilty, a choice that could play a central role in his upcoming trial.
A night 10 years ago
Ellen Engelhardt was one of the first women to serve on the State Police force, and she was the first female trooper to lose her life in the line of duty. A fit woman with a constant smile, she joined the force in 1981, when male cadets at the State Police Academy outnumbered females 15 to 1, and she quickly became a leader.
At her funeral at St. Christine’s Catholic Church in Marshfield, colleagues spoke of her love for her job and the force.
She and her longtime boyfriend, fellow trooper and State Police Lieutenant Richard Teves, had lived together for several years at the time of the crash.
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, July 26, 2003, Engelhardt had pulled off Route 25 in Wareham to examine a guardrail as part of an investigation into an earlier accident.
She had only been back to work for two months, after spending seven months recovering from serious injuries when her cruiser was struck by a drunk driver in South Yarmouth the previous October.
Senne, known as Billy to family and friends, was driving back to his job teaching sailing lessons on Cape Cod when his car smashed into Engelhardt’s at nearly 100 miles per hour.
In a recent interview, Senne spoke of that night and the “really bad decisions” he made that would alter the lives of all involved.
That summer, after graduating high school and looking forward to attending Roger Williams University in the fall, Senne taught sailing lessons while living at his family’s vacation home on Cape Cod. It was a Friday night, and he’d had a few beers with friends at the house.
At about 9 p.m., a girl from high school called Senne, a girl on whom he’d had “a big-time crush.” She asked him to come to Wayland. He got in the car, a decision he says he will always regret.
“I’d been working all day out in the hot sun,” he recalls. “I was tired when I got in the car.”
Senne spent several hours at the Wayland party, and at about 4 a.m. he got in the car and started back to the Cape.
“I didn’t have a drop to drink at the Wayland party,” he maintains. “Nothing.”
Nevertheless, prosecutors said that four hours after the crash, Senne had a .05 percent blood-alcohol level. Under Massachusetts law, the limit for those under 21 is less than .02 percent.
Senne says he has no recollection of the crash. He said he’d been awake nearly 24 hours before falling asleep at the wheel of his father’s Volvo. He got a cut lip and fractured cheekbone in the crash.
Someone helped him out of the car.
“I remember going to the guardrail and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what happened here?’ Then I got to the hospital and started overhearing things,” Senne says. “I started to put it together and realized, ‘Oh, my God, I hurt somebody.’ ”
Engelhardt, in a coma, was initially treated at Boston Medical Center, then sent to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, known for treating people with severe brain injuries. She never improved. She was transferred to a skilled nursing facility in Middleborough in 2004, where she died seven years later.
At the time of the crash, Senne had three speeding citations on his record, and in 2003, before the crash, he was arrested by Wayland police for having an unopened 30-pack of beer in his car.
He was 19 when he was sent to Plymouth, a maximum security facility, for the Engelhardt crash.
Released from jail in 2007, Senne, then 22, was put on five years probation and required to perform 500 hours of community service. He chose Accelerated Cure Project, a Waltham nonprofit searching for a cure for multiple sclerosis.
Haunted by a guilty plea
Senne pleaded guilty in 2005 to causing bodily injury while driving drunk, he says, because he felt it was “the right thing” to do. “The point was never to fight this,” he said. “I did something really wrong, and I needed to do something about it.”
In court that day, he apologized to Engelhardt’s loved ones. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Senne said in a halting voice. “I spend so much time thinking that there is nothing in this world I’d rather do than go back in time and fix it.”
Senne’s lawyer for that plea, Paul V. Kelly, told reporters at the time that the teenager wanted to allow “the healing process” to begin for both families.
Kelly maintained that Senne was not drunk at the time of the crash, but had fallen asleep at the wheel.
And yet, speaking recently in his small Cambridge office, Senne said he didn’t realize there were circumstances under which he could be prosecuted again years later for the accident.
“If I had known I was going to be reprosecuted, I never would have pleaded guilty,” Senne says. “Who in their right mind would plead guilty knowing it would be used against them later?”
Senne's parents divorced when he was in high school. In November 2004, his father had a brain aneurysm and was hospitalized during his son’s legal woes.
Peter Senne recalls that his son’s plea “was a done deal” by the time he recovered.
“Certainly this decision was not necessarily the best one,” he says, “not with what they’re adding.”
Legal experts say Senne’s situation is a rare one.
David Rossman, who teaches criminal procedure and directs the criminal law clinic at the Boston University School of Law, says such cases are most likely to occur in an assault, where the victim lingers before dying.
Nevertheless, Rossman says, double jeopardy doesn’t come into play in the Senne case because there are two different crimes alleged.
“The facts necessary to convict him of manslaughter didn’t exist at the time of the previous crime,” said Rossman.
Senne’s earlier plea, Rossman said, can be admitted into evidence at the upcoming trial. “The prosecution can let the jury know that the defendant was convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, the earlier charge, that he did something that could have caused the death later on.”
But Rossman said the prosecution could choose not to introduce the prior plea.
“They might not want the jury to know because the jury could figure he’s already served 2½ years, and there’s the tough question of whether he caused the death,” he said. “So they might ask, why should he be punished again?”
Stephen Weymouth, a lawyer in private practice in Boston, said he has never heard of a similar case involving a car crash.
“What the government is going to have to show, even through the passage of eight years, is that the death was directly caused by the actions of the defendant in 2003,” Weymouth said. “Whether or not a jury would buy that is a totally different question.”
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz will not comment on pending cases. Cruz was the district attorney in 2005, and he sought 8 to 10 years for Senne on the earlier charge. When the teenager was sentenced to 2½ years in prison, Cruz voiced his disappointment.
“There are no winners,” the DA said at the time. “Everybody loses in this instance.”
Bridget Norton Middleton, Cruz’s spokeswoman, agrees that delayed prosecutions are rare, but said Cruz has prosecuted one other, which involved an assault.
“There was a significant amount of time between the event and the death of the victim” in the assault case, Middleton said. “And the defendant was convicted of an assault crime and then, once the victim died, was ultimately charged with manslaughter and was convicted.”
Senne’s lawyer on the latest charge, Daniel O’Malley of Quincy, declined to comment.
After release, a new start
After he was released from Plymouth in 2007, Senne enrolled in night classes at Boston College. The oldest of four children, he says his parents sacrificed financially to cover his legal fees, and so he sought a way to help pay his college costs.
While Senne was at BC, he earned a real estate license and started working part time at Century 21, first in residential rentals, then residential sales.
In spring of 2009, his junior year, he opened his own agency, Point Plus Realty, and was able to cover his last 2½ years of tuition, rent, and food.
The business has thrived. Senne is proud of his 20 full-time employees and feels responsible for them. “This is a career place,” he said. “People here are ambitious and they have bills to pay.”
With the business growing, he has been looking for more office space. Since the indictment, he can no longer get a bank loan.
“He has a great business plan for the future, but because of the charge against him, we’re stuck,” says sales associate Jane Follansbee. “There’s only so much you can plan for. I know he feels personally bad about it, but it’s not his fault that we can’t get a loan, and we’re rallying behind him.”
But Senne knows that not everyone feels that way.
After Engelhardt died in 2011, the online commenters were brutal.
“I think people should harass Senne every time they see him,” one person wrote in response to a Globe story about Engelhardt’s death. Other sentiments were unprintable. One day, a man called Senne’s office and asked an agent: “How does it feel to be working for a murderer?”
“There’s no sympathy for someone who did what I did, and I don’t have sympathy for myself,” Senne said. “I destroyed her life, and those around her. I’m no less sorry than the day I did it, but at some point, there has to be an end to it.”
Senne feels he has taken responsibility for his actions and, in the years since, has tried to be a productive citizen. He doesn’t shy away from telling prospective employees and clients about his past, when he feels it’s necessary.
“It’s part of who I am,” he said.
Insurance companies for Senne and for his father, whose car Senne was driving, settled a multimillion dollar lawsuit with Engelhardt’s family.
Engelhardt’s only child, Lora Tedeman, had sued for $6.2 million to help with her mother’s care.
Senne’s father, now retired, founded and advised various start-ups, and later was an executive in the healthcare industry. The family still owns the house on Bassetts Island off Bourne, which has only five other homes.
Peter Senne questions why Cruz, the Plymouth district attorney, brought the vehicular homicide charge.
Marian McGovern, superintendent of the State Police until her retirement in July, was a cadet with Engelhardt, and the two were close friends. When Engelhardt died, McGovern told the Globe that her staff would confer with the district attorney’s office about possibly filing new charges.
McGovern could not be reached for comment, but State Police spokesman David Procopio said the force supports the indictment.
“There is not a day that, in some way, large or small, someone on this job does not remember Trooper Engelhardt, how she lived, and how she died,” he said. “The taking of another life is the most severe crime, and a person whose choices and actions bring that about should be held accountable to a level commensurate with the circumstances and magnitude of that loss.”
When do the war crimes trials for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Clinton, Obama, et al, begin?
Teves, Engelhardt’s longtime boyfriend who also served as her family’s spokesman, said neither he nor Tedeman of Plymouth pushed for the indictment.
“As far as we were concerned, we weren’t going to get anymore than what had already been adjudicated by the court,” says Teves, who married in 2007 and stays in touch with Tedeman. “He pleaded guilty, it saved us from a trial, and Ellen’s gone. What more can we hope for from any further punishment? We don’t see the need to live in the past.”
Tedeman did not return repeated calls from the Globe on the matter.
Senne knows how serious the new charge is. “I’m terrified,” he says. “This has the potential to destroy what I look at as years of trying to live a good life out of respect for the pain I’ve caused.
“I could have very easily given up, picked up bad habits, and moved out of state. I was on the low road and I tried to figure out what the high road was. I work hard, I don’t drink or do drugs, I stay out of trouble, I’m a good guy, and now it’s all put in jeopardy by this charge.”