By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It’s been four months since an SUV crashed into a park bench, causing a 71-year-old man to lose a finger and suffer other injuries.
Yesterday, someone was charged in the case.
Angel Suarez, 66, of 3 May Court, Methuen, was arraigned in Haverhill District Court on charges related to the crash, which caused the victim sleeping on the park bench injuries to his finger, hip, ribs and shoulder, police said.
The crash happened the night of Aug. 31 at GAR Park, across the street from the public library. Yesterday, the district attorney’s office failed to answer questions about why it took investigators so long to bring Suarez to court.
Police said Suarez was driving drunk and that his car also hit the Korean War monument in the park, causing minor damage to it. After the crash, he drove away from the park and traveled over the New Hampshire line into nearly Newton, police said. There, his SUV went off the road and he was arrested, police said.
Newton police said that when they found Suarez, his pockets contained three receipts from a restaurant in Salem. The receipts showed he bought six margaritas and three beers about an hour before he drove his vehicle off the road on Route 108 in Newton, police said. Suarez eventually pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and he lost his right to drive in New Hampshire as well as Massachusetts, his lawyer said.
In Haverhill yesterday, Suarez was arraigned on charges of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and three counts of leaving the scene of property damage. During yesterday’s hearing, Suarez’s defense lawyer Robert Lewin said it has been almost five months since the night of the accident and that he and his client previously attended a clerk’s hearing in Haverhill District Court, during which yesterday’s hearing was scheduled.
Prosecutor Stephen Patten said that after Suarez’s SUV struck the park bench, injuring Victor Welch of Haverhill, the SUV hit the Korean War Memorial. Patten said that according to witnesses, Suarez then paused for about 30 seconds before driving away.
“Not only did he strike the bench, he shattered the bench,” Patten said during yesterday’s hearing.
Patten said that after Suarez drove away from GAR Park, Newton police received a report of a vehicle off the road and went to the scene. There, they found Suarez. He failed a field sobriety test and was charged with drunken driving, police said. According to a Newton police report, Suarez agreed to a Breathalyzer test, which showed a blood alcohol level of .196.
“Police had to hold him up,” Patten said about field sobriety tests that were conducted by Newton police and which police said Suarez failed. “In addition, the defendant was in total disbelief that he was in New Hampshire.”
Patten asked Judge Stephen Abany to hold Suarez on $10,000 cash bail saying he has a “real problem with alcohol.”
Lewin said Suarez accepted “full responsibility” by pleading guilty to drunken driving in New Hampshire and that he is scheduled to begin a drunk driver education program this week in New Hampshire. Lewin said Suarez’s license to drive was revoked in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for an indefinite period.
Lewin said Suarez, a native of Ecuador who served in the army there, is a U.S. citizen, and that he obtained degrees in physics and mathematics and is retired from work in the high-tech field. Lewin argued against holding Suarez on high bail, saying he showed up for all of his hearings in New Hampshire, that he cooperated with Newton police and gave permission to Haverhill police to search his vehicle.
Lewin said he would not dispute the drunken driving charges in this case, but questioned the charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon as it relates to leaving the scene. He said there was no evidence showing Suarez knew he hit a person because it was dark at the time and the victim was lying on the bench. Lewin said Suarez had no prior charges of driving under the influence. Patten said Suarez’s driving record includes failure to stop after an accident in Lowell in 2003.
Abany released Suarez on several conditions, including that he not drive any vehicle, remain alcohol free, submit to drug and alcohol screenings, and install an “Intoxilator” device inside all the vehicles at his home.
“People are worried about dangerous people on the road,” Abany said.
Suarez was ordered to return to court Feb. 27 for a pretrial hearing.
According to Haverhill police, on the night of Aug. 31, Patrolman Ronald Hilchey was on patrol about 10:30 p.m. when he was flagged down by a man on Locust Street. Police said the man described a dark colored SUV that was operating erratically and that it ran red lights and stop signs.
Hilchey alerted the police dispatch center and drove up Winter Street. As he approached GAR Park, he was flagged down by several people who told him a man had just been hit by a car. Hilchey put out an alert to be on the lookout for a dark colored Toyota 4Runner matching the description given by witnesses.
Police said a Trinity EMS ambulance transported the victim to Lawrence General Hospital and that he was later taken by helicopter to a Boston hospital. State troopers and Haverhill police followed a trail of liquid through part of Haverhill and onto Route 108, before the trail ended. Police were able to identify the vehicle that crashed into Welch as Suarez’s, and when they went to his home, his wife said she had received a call about 11 p.m. from her husband, who asked her to go to Newton to bail him out of jail because he had been arrested for drunken driving.