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Student Pleads Guilty to Careless Driving in New Zealand Crash

Margaret Theriault, seriously injured, out of hospital, heading home

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Stephen Houseman (SHA’13), the driver of a minivan that rolled over on a New Zealand highway, killing three BU students, received a six-month driving ban in New Zealand, but no jail time, after pleading guilty Wednesday to careless driving.

Margaret Theriault (SMG’13), meanwhile, who was seriously injured in the crash, left New Zealand yesterday with her parents, after being discharged from Waikato Hospital, where she had been treated for a head injury.

Houseman was driving one of three vans carrying 26 study abroad students on May 12 when, according to New Zealand police investigators, his van veered off the road, then rolled several times after he tried to correct his course. Daniela Lekhno (SMG’13), Roch Jauberty (CAS’14), and Austin Brashears (ENG’13) died in the crash, and five students were injured.

Houseman pleaded guilty in Auckland District Court to seven counts of careless driving causing injury or death. Each count carried a maximum penalty of three months in jail. According to New Zealand media quoted by WBUR, BU’s NPR station, Judge Brook Gibson called the situation a “case where the carelessness was slight but the outcome was massive.” BU students, their parents, and a U.S. diplomat attended court to support Houseman, the station reported.

On campus, while some students found the sentence surprisingly lenient, most interviewed said it was appropriate.

“He’s already gone through a lot with what happened,” said Tim Keane (CAS’13). “He has to live with the injuries and death he caused. Would throwing him in jail really punish him more than he has been?”

Keya Vakil (COM’13) felt the same way. “It was just a really tragic accident,” he said. “It would make a sad situation sadder if he served jail time, and I’m glad he’s released and coming back.” Kelly Dickinson (CAS’13, COM’13) said she wondered if Houseman would have received a more severe sentence in a U.S. court.

Margaret Theriault

Photo courtesy of the Theriault family

Andrew Berkman (SMG’13), who studied with Theriault (right) in Sydney and had worked with her as a School of Management teaching assistant last year, said he believes the sentence was appropriate. “I’m happy Stephen will be able to return to the United States to spend time with his friends and family after what has been a tremendously difficult month for the entire BU community,” Berkman said. “I know he was very close with Austin and loved going on trips around New Zealand with him and many other students in the Auckland program.”

In a statement released before the family left New Zealand, Theriault’s parents thanked the staff at Waikato Hospital, as well as all New Zealanders, for the care given to their daughter.

“The lives of all the families of this wonderful group of young students were turned upside down, and we continue to support each other as we move forward,” they said. “It has been a much different journey than what these adventurous students had originally planned. Our experiences have taught us to look at the world through very different eyes.…We know in our hearts that Meg will work to heal and return to finish her studies at Boston University.”

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) said that returning to BU was a decision to be made by both Theriault and Houseman. “Certainly, we look forward to them coming back,” he said. “I’m really grateful she’s on her way back and I keep her and her family, and the other students who were injured, in my thoughts and prayers.” Elmore also lauded the judge for what he called the fairness of the sentence, and said he was impressed by Houseman’s courtroom demeanor toward the families of the victims: “Stephen to me looked like a model of poise. I’m very proud of this young man in terms of the way he handled this.”

The three-vehicle caravan was day-tripping to scenic Tongariro Crossing, a location used in the Lord of the Rings movie. All of the students in the van were enrolled in BU’s study program in Auckland except Theriault, who was visiting from her study program in Sydney, Australia.

Amy Laskowski and Andreia DeVries (CAS’13, COM’13) assisted in reporting for this article.

19 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

19 Comments on Student Pleads Guilty to Careless Driving in New Zealand Crash

  • guest on 06.14.2012 at 5:56 am

    Three people dead for a careless accident. It is a shame. Should have seen more jail time.

    • huh? on 06.14.2012 at 7:18 am

      And what would that have accomplished exactly?

      You know nothing about what happened except what the judge was quoted as saying: “Judge Brook Gibson called the situation a “case where the carelessness was slight but the outcome was massive.””

    • bp on 06.14.2012 at 7:32 am

      That’s just asinine. Whether or not it’s “careless” doesn’t matter, it is a crime to get in any sort of car accident in NZ (just like Mexico, many other countries have this rule).
      Guilty or innocent was never in doubt. It happened. It was a horrible tragedy. You weren’t in the car so F-off

    • guest on 06.14.2012 at 9:38 am

      Get it together, guest. I’m sure you’ve taken actions in your life that, if occurring a split second earlier or later, could have caused tragic loss. Try a little kindness and compassion. Any one of us could easily be in Stephen’s shoes.

    • abc on 06.14.2012 at 1:23 pm

      Guest, your ignorance disgusts me. Having to deal with the deaths of such close friends on top of harsh careless driving laws (NON-EXISTANT law in the US) is just horrible. Had this happened in the states he would have never faced a court. There was no alcohol, no drugs, no texting, and no speed involved. He was driving on a rural road with no shoulder making a slight mistake a horrible tragedy. I cannot imagine how difficult this whole process has been on him and ignorant people like you make the healing process more painful than it already is. Before you open your mouth and make comments like the one you have posted get your facts straight and think about how you’d feel in his place.

      • Luay Kanaan on 06.14.2012 at 8:02 pm

        well said (abc)

    • xxxPoxxx on 06.15.2012 at 5:02 am

      I don’t know what should I say about this.I feel sometimes western countries think about “humanity” too much that it makes the whole thing become inhumane. It is not fair for the victims, as well as their family.

  • Herschel K. on 06.14.2012 at 7:09 am

    “Police said the crash appeared to happen when the minivan drifted to the side of the road and Houseman tried to correct his course but ended up rolling the van several times.

    “It was a classic careless driving case where the carelessness was slight but the outcome was massive,” said Judge Brooke Gibson, according to Fairfax Media.”

    The sentence is appropriate. Jail time is not. He was not drunk or high, they did not say he was speeding, they did not say he was driving erratically. He allowed the van drift. If you look at the pictures of the rolled van you can see that this road had no shoulder, once one side of the van was off pavement it was on soft, sloped dirt… a young man, probably relatively inexperienced driving a van, particularly one with a load of passengers (which greatly changes the dynamics).

    Should he not have drifted off the road? Of course. Should we punish this “slight carelessness” with jail times and heavy sentences? I think no.

    How many times have you caught yourself with wheels over the line on the right side of the road? It happens to the best of us. Driving in a potentially scenic country I can see that situation as being even worse.

    Let’s not vilify this man over an accident. Had the van simply stopped, or had no one died, would he be due jail time? The punishment should fit the crime, not the fall-out, in a situation like this.

    • w2lucky on 06.14.2012 at 2:11 pm

      Well put Herschel!

  • Sam Stone on 06.14.2012 at 7:21 am

    I have no idea what happened in the van that morning to precipitate this accident, but I assume that Houseman was either sleepy or distracted. With a van full of young people, I suspect the latter. A driver – of a city bus or just a mom taking her child to school – must separate themselves from the “activity” in the vehicle and focus on driving. Anything that interferes with that focus – horseplay, texting, talking on the cell phone, or just talking to passengers – should be avoided. Driving others is a massive responsibility that is often taken far too lightly. As this tragedy demonstrates, you literally have your passengers’ lives in your hands.

  • Michele Stephens on 06.14.2012 at 7:34 am

    @guest I wholeheartedly disagree with you. If this accident had happened in the United States, it would have never for a second gone into courts as a criminal charge because it was a, key word, ACCIDENT (several law experts on the news said this as well, and also said the only way it would see the inside of a court room was if the families decided to sue). The court said that there was ZERO evidence of drugs, alcohol, or speeding, and considering the lack of severity in the sentencing it suggests that after interviewing the other surviving members of the van police were probably told by them that he wasn’t doing anything truly careless while driving. The fact that three people died in this accident isn’t just “a shame”, it’s a complete and utter tragedy, but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw someone who is psychologically distressed over this in jail in a foreign country because you think it’s an “appropriate punishment”. Accidentally having a car drift over 3 feet to the left is no reason to throw someone in jail for an extended period of time when they already have to live with the guilt for the rest of their life.

  • GS on 06.14.2012 at 7:51 am

    This young man will carry a very heavy burden for the rest of his life; these weren’t random people in a car, they were all friends. Incarceration wouldn’t have solved anything … and in all likelihood, this young driver (as well as his surviving passengers) may need some serious therapy – perhaps even years, to fully sort out their minds to fully become productive souls. Such a tragic accident which sadly and horrifically altered the lives of these people in an instant. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved in this awful incident – to the family and friends of the deceased, your world is no doubt a smaller place today and the sun just doesn’t seem to shine as brightly …. and to the young driver, may you find a good solid mooring somewhere because the dark and stormy weather will likely continue for some time and will constantly challenge the strength of your pennants. The whole BU community mourns …

  • Ana Claudia on 06.14.2012 at 8:37 am

    The sentence seemed fair. The outcome was tragic, but it was an accident. I don’t understand why a student was driving the van though. Shouldn’t a professional driver used to the local roads (and driving on the left side of the road) be in charge of this huge responsibility?

    • Sandeep on 06.14.2012 at 12:01 pm

      I agree. It’s difficult to drive on a side opposite to the one in home country. I hope his mind manages to come out of this situation soon.

  • LE on 06.14.2012 at 12:11 pm

    I agree with what everyone else has been saying. I am really glad that Stephen will be able to return to America to be close to his family and friends during this time. It could have been any of those students behind the wheel when this happened. Overcorrecting a van is a truly unfortunate and tragic accident. Still, I’m glad the situation isn’t being extended with jail time for what was a non-reckless accident. My thoughts are with all of the students in that van.

  • Ann Olson on 06.14.2012 at 2:09 pm

    While I agree with the mercy accorded Stephen in this sentencing, actions have consequences. Just because it is “an accident” does not absolve an individual from consequences.

    Would this have made it to court in the US? Michele, I was interested enough to look up the definition of “manslaughter” in thefreedictionary.com’s legal dictionary which states “Involuntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another human being without intent. The absence of the intent element is the essential difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Also in most states, involuntary manslaughter does not result from a heat of passion but from an improper use of reasonable care or skill while in the commission of a lawful act or while in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony.” Law students? What say you? It seems to me there were certainly grounds to take this to court in the US.

    That said, this was a tragic accident–and I’m glad Stephen will be able to be home where my prayer is he finds comfort and healing along with all those affected. But please let us not forget that our actions have consequences, whether they are intentional or not. Let us each “take care”–really–as we walk through our daily lives.

  • Webster on 06.15.2012 at 11:07 am

    I do not think it is any of our place to judge what happened or the people involved. None of us were there or were witnesses so Monday morning quarterbacking does not work in this very real world situation. Sometimes accidents occur for no apparent reason, that’s why they call them accidents. The lesson we should all walk away with is: 1) always wear your seatbelt and 2) show some compassion because at any time a horrible accident can happen to any one of us – PERIOD.
    Me, I hope Stephen is able to find a silver lining in all of this, somehow. I know it seems so impractical and I pray that his life is not ruined but I am realistic to know it is changed forever and hope the kindness of other will help him heal. Right now our place is to support Stephen and the others in the van as well as send positive energy to those mourning the losses from this horrible accident. I am glad Stephen can finally leave NZ and come home to his family and loved ones.

  • Freo on 06.16.2012 at 2:36 am

    I live in NZ and I know the area where the accident occurred. Yes, there is little or no shoulder on the roads and this was the first time he had driven in this country. He was inexperienced with the roads here.

  • dad on 12.10.2012 at 7:39 am

    Perhaps we should take greater precautions in foreign lands in the future, requiring additional driving coursework for those who would be allowed to drive for students in other countries. Becoming more familiar with maps, signs, where areas are dangerous,… I know I was required to take a lenghty driving course prior to driving in another country when in the military.

    On a global issue – unfortunately not all countries have the same standards for roadways. It would be great if they were all required to meet certain minimum standards with some kind of universal classifications that let you know what you would be driving on. Roadways with no shoulders composed of soft dirt or mud are inherently dangerous and require specific thought processes when being driven on. Governments should ensure roadways are safe, and require special instruction where necessary to prevent unsafe usage of more those that are more dangerous.

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