One year ago today, a tragic accident claimed the life of State Senator James Rhoades, a Republican from Mahanoy City who was arguably one of the most respected and popular senators in the region's history.
He was en route to Pleasant Valley High School in Brodheadsville, where he was to be honored during the halftime ceremonoy of a football game, when the accident happened. The school wanted to thank him for a grant he had obtained to get the high school stadium renovated.
The accident occurred at about 6:35 p.m. on Route 209, on a two-lane bridge in front of the Beechwood Inn in Chestnuthill Township, Monroe County. Rhoades and his wife Mary were traveling north in their black Cadillac, when involved in a head-on crash with a green pick-up truck. Both James and Mary were trapped inside their vehicle. After extrication, they were flown to Lehigh Valley Hospital.
The senator died the following morning. He was pronounced dead at 9:35 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2008 by Arjumand Ali, MD.
The cause of death was listed as multiple blunt force trauma due to a motor vehicle accident.
The driver of the pick-up truck, Thomas P. Senavitis, 45, of Pohopoco Drive, Kunkletown, also was seriously injured and hospitalized. He recovered and on Jan. 14, 2009, nearly three months after the accident, Senavitis was charged with causing the crash.
Charges that Senavitis faces are homicide by vehicle/DUI, aggravated assault by vehicle/DUI, homicide by vehicle, DUI/unsafe driving, DUI/BAC .16 percent and greater; recklessly endangering, driving on the right side of the road, driving within lane, careless driving, and reckless driving. His BAC reportedly was .0355, more than four times the legal limit of .008.
He presently sits in Monroe County Prison awaiting trial.
Trooper Jason Beers of the Fern Ridge Barracks of the State Police is the investigating officer.
It initially sounded like a typical drunk driving accident in which the fault lays with a highly-inebriated individual. A group calling itself “Ombudsman and Advocates in Northeastern Pennsylvania for all Victims of Legal Malfeasance" has rallied behind Senavitis, however, even portraying him as a victim.
On the night of the crash, the state police report indicates there was a third vehicle which was in the overall scenario. Trooper Beers said a green Ford Windstar was parked on the north shoulder of the road. Rhoades' Cadillac struck the van after impact with the pick-up, police said. The driver of the van was Yamila Yafar. Neither she nor a passenger, Juleanne Steinmetz, a 9-week-old infant, were injured.
A preliminary hearing for Senavitis occurred on Jan. 30. The only testimony was by Trooper Beers.
Trooper Beers admitted at the hearing that photos taken of the vehicles involved in the accident were taken after they were moved; that they were not in their original position when the accident occurred.
The defense attorney for Senavitis is claiming that possibly it was the senator who crossed the middle line on the highway.
Also disputed was the blood alcohol level of Senavitis.
Distirct Judge Debby York ordered all charges be forwarded to Monroe County Court.
What was never disputed was the popularity of the fallen senator. A funeral Mass was held in Mahanoy City which attracted several thousand people. Volunteer firefighters from at least 30 fire departments lined the main street of Mahanoy City with apparatus. People watched the funeral procession from their porches.
In a special election held on March 3, 2009, Republican state Representative Dave Argall of Lake Hauto was elected to fill Rhoades' seat.
As a former educator, Rhoades had an interest in education issues and ultimately became Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. As chairman of that committee, Rhoades had influence over almost all education related laws, including the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program.
He also served on the Appropriations, Transportation, Law and Justice, and Environmental Resources and Energy committees.
At the time of Rhoades' death, he was running for his eighth term in the State Senate, making him second on the list of longest serving senators. With absentee ballots having already been mailed in the state, the county could not remove Rhoades' name from the ballot.
Rhoades was posthumously re-elected with 64 percent of the vote, leading to the special election won by Argall.
Did a drunk driver kill the senator and seriously hurt his wife? Or was Senavitis a victim himself, being made a scapegoat in the tragedy?
The truth will become known when Senavitis gets his day in court.