Suspect in fatal DUI pleads not guilty

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Riley Watkins, 25, appears via video during his arraignment Monday afternoon (Photo by Colin Flanders)

A 25-year-old man pleaded not guilty to a pair of felonies stemming from a drunken driving crash that killed his girlfriend last week.

Riley H. Watkins was arraigned via video Monday afternoon at the Chittenden Superior Court. He didn’t speak during the brief hearing, and his public defender entered his plea to charges of grossly negligent driving and DUI with death resulting.

If convicted, Watkins could face a minimum penalty of two years and a maximum of 30 years in prison.

The hearing came four days after Emma Press, a 24-year-old South Burlington woman who recently moved to Essex with Watkins, died from injuries sustained in last Thursday night’s crash on Susie Wilson Road.

Watkins and Press had a loud argument in front of her aunt’s residence on the night of the crash, her aunt’s boyfriend told police, an affidavit says. They then got into the car and sped off from the residence, which is less than a mile from the scene.

Witnesses told police Watkins’ vehicle ran through a red light at the intersection in front of Lowe’s, jumped the curb and hit a traffic light pole just before 10 p.m. The vehicle suffered severe damage to its passenger side.

Police say a responding officer cut away an airbag to find an unconscious Press bleeding heavily. Watkins helped the officer hold Press’ head steady until emergency personnel arrived.

Watkins was combative toward EMTs working to extricate Press from the vehicle, the affidavit says.

“[If] she dies, I’m going to make sure you’re all dead,” Watkins told police, court documents say. Press was later transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

The affidavit quotes a witness who saw empty beer cans in the backseat and driver’s side door. Police said Watkins emitted an odor of intoxicants, and his eyes were “extremely bloodshot and watery.”

Watkins refused a field sobriety test and was taken to the Essex Police Department, where he later blew a .196 percent blood-alcohol content, more than twice the legal limit. He also had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket, court records show.

The crash was Watkins’ second run-in with law enforcement in recent months. He was arrested in September for assaulting Press’ father while the couple lived at her father’s house, court records show. Press moved to her aunt’s house soon after.

Larry Press, the victim’s father, had filed for a restraining order against Watkins and asked Burlington-based attorney Benjamin Luna to attend Monday’s arraignment and speak on his behalf.

Luna told reporters Larry Press is “absolutely distraught” over the loss of his daughter in what he called a “horrible tragedy.”

“He wanted me to convey the message of: This does happen to people, and it shouldn’t happen to people,” Luna said. “That it’s preventable. Don’t drink and drive —  it’s that simple. And here you have yet another example … of a life being lost senselessly, prematurely, for no good reason at all.”

Luna said Larry Press planned to meet with the state’s attorney later that day to offer his input. His client is pleased with the state’s charges and believes the more appropriate charge is the DUI.

“This is not a case that should be pled as a gross negligent operation,” Luna said. “The defendant, by what we know of the case, was heavily under the influence of alcohol, and but for that, Larry’s daughter wouldn’t have perished.”

Luna expected Watkins’ assault case would become relevant during sentencing if he is convicted of the latest charges.

On Monday, state prosecutors requested Watkins’ bail be set at $20,000 bond, claiming Press was his only tie to Vermont. He’s originally from Indiana, court records show.

Judge Dennis Pearson instead set a $10,000 bond. Watkins’ conditions of release say he must be released to the custody of a responsible adult and can’t possess any regulated drug without a prescription.

Watkins’ next court date is yet to be set.