Senior US officer cleared of causing Harrogate crash that injured teenagers

Benjamin Oakes' car collided with a pick-up truck. Credit: PA

A senior United States military officer has been cleared of careless driving following a crash that left two 15-year-old boys seriously injured.

York Magistrates' Court heard how Benjamin Oakes collided with a Ford Ranger pick-up truck as he edged his Vauxhall Astra out of a "blind" junction in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in February.

The pick-up then collided with another car before ploughing into two passing 15-year-old boys and a wall, burying the teenagers in debris.

On Tuesday at York Magistrates’ Court, District Judge Adrian Lower cleared Mr Oakes, 46, of two counts of causing serious injury by careless driving.

The judge said: "I cannot be satisfied so that I’m sure that Mr Oakes’s driving fell below the standard expected of a competent and careful motorist in all the circumstances of this case."

Mr Lower said he had not heard any evidence that helped him decide how fast the Ford pick-up was travelling and "this was crux of the issue of careless driving".

He said: “I can’t exclude the possibility that truck was not there to be seen when Mr Oakes emerged from the junction.”

Mr Oakes – who is understood to be the head of space policy for the US joint chiefs of staff at the Pentagon – told the judge on Tuesday (Dec 12) how he was attempting to turn right out of Ashville College independent school onto Yew Tree Lane, a turning he had done many times before.

He said the junction is difficult to negotiate as there is "zero visibility" to the right, due to a building, unless drivers "nose into" the road to get a better view.

Mr Oakes described how a car coming from the left flashed its light to let him out and he edged out of the junction.

A pickup truck crashed through a wall in the incident. Credit: ITV News

He told the court: "As I pulled out to the point where I could see, that’s the point of the collision."

He told Judge Lower he first thought it was just a "fender-bender" but then saw the back of the truck sticking out from the college wall and heard children screaming that "someone had been hit".

Mr Oakes said he did not see the pick-up and did not know why.

Asked when he first saw the vehicle, he said: "Not until it was right on top of me."

Judge Lower said he had heard evidence that the junction was very difficult to negotiate and said it was "in many ways a blind junction".

Earlier on Tuesday, the court heard how one of the boys who was injured suffered multiple fractures to his leg, foot, and arm.

The teenager was in hospital for 18 days, where he had a number of operations including having metal supports inserted around his leg.

His friend was in hospital for 22 days after also suffering multiple fractures and the separation of the skin on one of his lower legs, which was described as being "de-gloved".

Both boys were in court for the verdict, one using a crutch and wearing shorts, revealing obvious injuries to his lower leg.

He became upset, along with other members of the boys’ families, when body-worn footage was shown of police talking to Mr Oakes at the scene and screaming could be heard in the background.

North Yorkshire Police collision investigator Paul Harris said he considered whether the defendant being an American citizen used to driving on the other side of the road could have contributed to his actions on 2 February.

Mr Harris said there was no evidence that this contributed to the collision and the court heard Mr Oakes had been driving in the UK for a number of years.

In his closing speech, Peter Minnikin, defending, said the case was initially brought on the basis that Mr Oakes, as an American, looked the wrong way at the junction but prosecutors shifted their argument once it emerged there was no evidence to support this.

Mr Oakes, from Harrogate, gave his evidence dressed in a grey suit, white shirt, and red tie. He showed no emotion as he was cleared.

The Guardian has reported that Mr Oakes has worked in a range of high-level roles for the Pentagon and, according to his LinkedIn profile which was taken down shortly after he first appeared in court, he has been serving as the chief of space policy for the joint chiefs of staff.