More than two and a half years after the crash of a defective Jeep claimed the life of a high school senior, the young man's family finally saw some justice this week.
A jury in Edgartown district court deliberated for just over an hour Wednesday before finding Robert Cimeno Sr., a 64-year-old former Tisbury police officer and the owner of a moped and car rental business, guilty of placing a fake inspection sticker on the 1979 Jeep CJ-7 almost a year before it veered off County Road in Oak Bluffs in the spring of 2001.
The March 28 crash, blamed on faulty steering, killed the passenger, Eric MacLean, just days after his 18th birthday. The Jeep was driven by his longtime friend and classmate, Seamus O'Brien.
Mr. Cimeno's conviction for uttering a forged Registry of Motor Vehicles document could have landed him in jail for up to five years, but district court Judge Joseph R. Welch sentenced him to a suspended jail term of six months plus two years probation and the maximum fine of $500.
"This is a very serious crime, a fraud on the public," Judge Welch said at the sentencing late Wednesday afternoon. "Law-abiding citizens have to wait in line. Everyone knows that the Vineyard has a shortage of inspection stations, but this has far-reaching ramifications."
Any mention of Mr. MacLean's death was excluded from the trial, but his extended family sat in the center rows of the courtroom from start to finish, from the jury selection Monday until the verdict and sentencing on Wednesday.
As the six jurors and two alternates filed back into the courtroom shortly after 4 p.m., Mr. MacLean's mother, Patricia Bergeron, sat next to her husband, holding clenched fingers over her lips as tears welled in her eyes.
"I am so happy that the right person is finally being held accountable," Ms. Bergeron told the Gazette yesterday. She acknowledged how difficult it was to watch a trial that was so much about her son and yet not hear his name.
"It was kind of weird, like he was never part of it," she said. Her family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mr. Cimeno and his wife, Patricia.
The criminal trial this week was riveting, not only because of the weight of what went unsaid, but also because of the sheer courtroom drama as Mr. Cimeno's two defense lawyers sparred with witnesses for the prosecution, including police, high-level registry officials and a forensics expert from the state police crime lab.
Mr. Cimeno, who sat on a side bench in the courtroom with tubes from an oxygen tank fixed under his nose, never took the stand. Clearly in poor health, he had difficulty standing, and he showed little emotion during the trial.
Evidence released at the trial also revealed the underbelly of one Island taxi company - owned first by Mr. Cimeno's wife and then his son - and raised questions about how widespread phony inspection stickers are on the Vineyard.
Registry officials testified and produced records that showed taxi vans bought and registered with specific odometer readings but never inspected in all the miles between. Records showed that only after police questioned the Cimenos in the case were the vans inspected; the odometers showed they had been driven thousands of miles in the meantime.
More damning evidence came from the state lab in Sudbury, where infrared testing determined that scraps of paper found in two of the Cimeno taxi vans matched the fake sticker on the Jeep.
"This is a case about greed and shady business practices," prosecutor Lisa Edmonds, an assistant Cape and Island district attorney, told the jury in her closing argument.
On Tuesday, the case turned on the testimony of Sean O'Brien, who said he saw Mr. Cimeno put the fake sticker on the Jeep, just days after it failed inspection.
Back in June of 2000, Mr. O'Brien, who lived in Oak Bluffs, was working for Mr. Cimeno at Beach Road Moped Rentals in Vineyard Haven when he saw a white Jeep on the lot. The business also rented cars, but Mr. O'Brien wanted to buy this one.
After some prodding, Mr. Cimeno agreed to sell it. Sean's father, James P. O'Brien, paid Mr. Cimeno $3,500 for the Jeep, which had roughly 100,000 miles on it.
But when Sean O'Brien and his twin brother, Seamus, took the Jeep to Buddy's Auto & Truck Repair Service in Oak Bluffs, it came back with a red R on the sticker. It had no emergency brake and a worn-out steering system.
"The front end was all shot, the steering was all shot," Allan (Buddy) deBettencourt Sr. told the prosecutor in his testimony Tuesday. "As far as I'm concerned, it was a Jeep that belonged in the junkyard. I told them to take that Jeep back where they got it from and get your money back. It's pure junk. But a lot of kids don't understand these things."
Sean O'Brien testified that he left the car with Mr. Cimeno for a couple of days. "I trusted that it was fixed, and I could drive it as soon as possible," he told Ms. Edmonds under direct examination.
Defense attorneys George Sollis and Christopher Bova from the law firm of Gibson & Behman in Burlington hammered Mr. O'Brien. "When you saw that Jeep, you really wanted it, you really liked it?" asked Mr. Sollis.
The defense questioned how far Mr. O'Brien was from the Jeep when he saw Mr. Cimeno scrape the rejection sticker off, and they pressed him for details on how close the Jeep was parked to the parking lot fence.
Mr. Sollis pointed over to the defendant, a heavy-set man, and asked "Do you think Bob could fit in a space the size of a foot?"
According to the defense, when Mr. O'Brien brought the Jeep back after it failed inspection, Mr. Cimeno told him he would return the $3,500 but Mr. O'Brien just drove off, saying he would fix the car himself.
Defense lawyers also questioned Mr. O'Brien's motivation for blaming Mr. Cimeno, pointing out that both his brother and father were also facing the same charges in connection with the case - uttering a false inspection sticker. Those charges were later dismissed.
"You think Bob Cimeno has any motivation to put a fake inspection sticker on that Jeep?" Mr. Sollis asked the jury in his closing argument. "What motivation does Sean have? All the motivation in the world."
Mr. Sollis argued that all Sean O'Brien wanted in the beginning was to keep the Jeep, and that after the fatal crash, all he wanted was to protect his family.
But Ms. Edmonds had saved some of the most convincing testimony for the end.
State police Sgt. Neal Maciel, who led the criminal investigation in the aftermath of the fatal accident, took the stand Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. and continued into Wednesday morning, detailing his interviews with Mr. O'Brien and the Cimenos and the police raids in May and June of 2001 of their business at 95 Beach Road and 16 Bridle Path in Oak Bluffs, the home of their son, Jeffrey Cimeno.
Five cars registered to Beach Road Rentals showed no inspection being done, Sergeant Maciel said. Two GMC vans registered to Patti's Taxis also showed no inspection records, but police did find scraps of paper on the right side of the dashboard, underneath the spot on the window where inspection stickers are placed.
Sergeant Maciel also pointed out a suspicious pattern that developed after police interviewed Robert and Patricia Cimeno on May 9, 2001 at their home, also located at 95 Beach road.
Cars and vans owned by the Cimenos started to roll in to inspection stations. One of them, a 1988 Dodge, had been purchased in May 1999 with 126,467 miles on the odometer. There was no inspection on record for the Dodge until May 24, 2001, two weeks after the Cimenos met with police.
What was the odometer reading, Ms. Edmonds asked the sergeant. It was 199,488 miles, he answered.
Defense attorneys objected to all this evidence, arguing that it had nothing to do with Mr. Cimeno, whose name was not part of the taxi company.
Two more witnesses - one of them a registry official with a home in Oak Bluffs - helped build the circumstantial case against Patti's Taxi, saying they had seen two cabs and written down the number on the inspection sticker. In both cases, it was an exact match for the number that was on the sticker of the fated Jeep.
"I had very fresh information that [Patti's Taxi] vans had never been inspected," Joseph P. Kelley, the RMV deputy registrar, told Ms. Edmonds.
State police forensic expert Elizabeth Fisher then took the stand and explained how she analyzed the paper scraps found in the Cimeno vans and the fake sticker from the Jeep with a technique called infrared microscopy.
The green color on the paper samples and the molecular bonds as shown on a graph had what Ms. Fisher called similar "fingerprints."
"The bonds are similar from item to item and could share a common origin," she said.
Again, defense lawyers for Mr. Cimeno tried to chip away at the evidence, arguing that fake inspection stickers with the same number were being found by police and the RMV across the state. They were readily obtainable, Mr. Sollis argued.
"Patti's Taxi is not your concern. It's not relevant," said Mr. Sollis in his closing argument.
But Ms. Edmonds fired back in her closing statement: "Are we going to sit here and defy logic that Patti's Taxi and Beach Road Rentals have nothing to do with each other?"
The verdict came quickly, and Mr. Cimeno's lawyers seemed prepared for it, arguing for some leniency as they asked for his probation to be transferred to Florida, where the Cimenos have another home.
That request, Judge Welch said, is a matter for the probation officers to decide.
After the trial adjourned Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Bergeron embraced her family on the courthouse lawn.