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2 held in death of highway worker

Police say drunk drivers tried to flee Framingham crash site

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By Brian R. Ballou and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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FRAMINGHAM — The prospect of a better life brought Gregory Vilidnitsky and his family here from Russia years ago. Carpentry work brought Jeremy Gardner of Maine and Walter Smith of Vermont here more recently.

On Tuesday night, the three men’s lives intersected in an alleged drunk driving accident that left one of them dead and the other two in police custody.

Vilidnitsky, an inspector for the state’s Department of Transportation, was focused on his job at 10:43 on Tuesday night at a construction zone on Route 9 in Framingham, checking the pavement temperature as part of quality control. A red Ford pickup carrying Gardner and Smith — who both argue the other was behind the wheel, though police said Gardner was — ran into Vilidnitsky and then smashed into an oil truck, prosecutors and police said.

The work site had reflective cones, barrels, and other markings set up around the perimeter, according to court records. A Middlesex sheriff’s deputy was also at the scene working a detail.

As Vilidnitsky, a father of two, lay bleeding in the breakdown lane, his boots and hard hat nearby, Gardner, 29, got out of the truck and started running toward a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, prosecutors and police said. Smith, 49, shifted to the driver’s seat and attempted to reverse the truck, but it would not move, authorities said. Smith then got out of the vehicle and fled in the same direction, according to prosecutors and police.

Several construction workers from D&R Paving chased after the men and caught them, then held them until police arrived. The workers and police were not aware that Vilidnitsky had been hit until moments later, when Scott Harmon, a truck driver who was delivering asphalt, noticed his body on the road and informed police.

Vilidnitsky, who would have turned 58 today, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Luisa Paiewonsky, highway division administrator for the transportation department, said yesterday, “Today we are grieving for one of our own workers. . . . He was a very well-regarded employee.’’

She also said he was known to take precautions.

“It’s one of the highest priorities we have, protecting our workers and contractors and people driving through our work zone, and it’s so frustrating to us that, despite all the work that we do in planning, that someone can get behind the wheel of a vehicle . . . and cause such devastation,’’ she said.

Gardner and Smith, both of whom have multiple driving offenses on their records in Massachusetts and their home states, including operating under the influence, were arraigned yesterday in Framingham District Court.

Gardner, charged with operating under the influence, second offense, motor vehicle homicide, speeding, and leaving the scene of an accident, was ordered held on $100,000 cash bail. Smith, charged with operating under the influence, third offense, and leaving the scene, was ordered held on $50,000 cash bail. Their attorneys pleaded not guilty on their behalf.

Yesterday, at the Framingham condominium where Vilidnitsky lived, his wife refused to comment, but a neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous, said Vilidnitsky doted over his two sons, one an adult and the other 12.

“This is like a nightmare. . . . He was such a friendly man, would do anything for you,’’ the neighbor said. “His son had a bar mitzvah coming up.’’

The neighbor added that Vilidnitsky has a master’s degree in engineering and that his wife works at a nursery school. “He was working the night shift, he had been on the day shift but recently switched to nights,’’ the neighbor said.

Harmon said in a telephone interview yesterday, referring to Vilidnitsky, “I didn’t know him personally, but everybody working that site knew that he was the one directing things. He was always making sure things were in the right spot, and I’d often see him in my rearview mirror.’’

According to their attorneys, Gardner and Smith were working a carpentry job in Wayland and staying at a hotel in Framingham. Gardner was registered at the Motel 6 near the scene. It was unclear yesterday whether Smith was staying at the same hotel.

Both men appeared intoxicated at the scene, police said.

When police asked Gardner, who was sitting on a curb, to stand, he was unable to do so and had to be assisted by an officer, they said.

According to their driving history, Gardner has a lengthy record in Massachusetts.

In 2001, his license was suspended for 15 months for transporting liquor as a minor and possessing a Class D drug. Two years later, he was arrested in Middleborough on OUI charges. He refused a chemical test and his license was suspended for 120 days.

He attended an alcohol program as a result.

He also refused to submit to a chemical test in Tuesday night’s fatal accident. Because of the motor vehicle homicide charge, his license has been suspended indefinitely.

Smith, of Barre, Vt., has two OUI convictions in that state, in 1984 and 2002. He was also convicted of driving while intoxicated in Amherst, Mass., in 1981 and attended an alcohol program as a result.

His license was suspended yesterday for three years for refusing a chemical test after the fatal accident Tuesday night.

Smith’s attorney, Michele Lyon, said during the arraignment that her client denied being behind the wheel at the time of the accident.

Bridgette Bradley, the attorney representing Gardner, said in court yesterday, “Smith was not sure who was driving; he was intoxicated. My client indicates it was Smith who was driving at the time of the accident.’’

She said Gardner lives in Bridgton, Maine, with his fiancee and their two small children. Gardner had been staying at the Framingham hotel for several weeks, she said.

“He’s a hard-working man, been in the carpentry business for five years trying to make a living,’’ she said.

She added, “Clearly, the issue at trial will be the identity of the driver.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.

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