BENTON, N.Y. – The man charged in a wreck that killed five Amish farmers in upstate New York had served prison time for stealing a Rochester police cruiser and leading pursuers on a 20-minute chase in 2006, authorities said Wednesday.
Police said then that Steven Eldridge tried to back into the squad car during a traffic stop, struggled with an officer and then drove off in the cruiser. State records show he served 2 1/3 years in prison for auto theft.
Eldridge, 42, of Penn Yan, now faces homicide and drunken driving charges after his car sideswiped a van while passing a slow-moving tractor about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Benton, an agricultural community nestled among the Finger Lakes, about 40 miles southeast of Rochester.
The 13 Amish farmers in the van were part of a larger group visiting farms to learn how they might inexpensively and simply extend the vegetable growing season. Five were killed; eight others and their driver were injured.
The accident happened soon after the group of close to 40 farmers — Amish and others — and Cornell Cooperative Extension employees took a break for lunch in Penn Yan. They were traveling to the second of two Mennonite farms that use plastic-covered "high tunnels" or "hoop houses," instead of more expensive and complicated greenhouses that use electricity, police and Cornell University spokesmen said.
Tom Tomsa, director of the Cooperative Extension in Steuben County, where the farmers came from, said the van was the last vehicle in a caravan of nine. After it failed to arrive at the second farm, members of his staff backtracked and found emergency crews already on the scene.
Donald Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and author of "The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World," said the outing was not unusual for the Amish. Even though they don't drive or use electricity from the grid, they want to remain on the cutting edge of farming practices, he said.
"Vanloads would go out sometimes searching for land, sometimes to special agriculture events, sometimes to look at practices in other communities," he said Wednesday. "They're hardworking but they're creative, inventive in terms of technology as well as new practices as long as it stays within the cultural, moral boundaries of their community."
Rescuers struggled for hours to free victims from the wreckage lodged under the tractor. Six people remained hospitalized Wednesday afternoon, three of them in guarded condition.
Eldridge was arraigned after the crash on five counts of criminally negligent homicide, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, unsafe passing, speed not reasonable and prudent, and failure to keep right after passing. He was held on $250,000 cash bail or $125,000 bond. His next court date is Friday. Authorities didn't know if he had a lawyer as of Wednesday afternoon.
The task of identifying the dead and injured was difficult because many Amish do not carry identification, and it took "extraordinary means" to identify the dead who suffered massive injuries, Yates County Sheriff Ronald Spike said. One of the survivors was able to give them some information at the scene and a group of Amish residents from the Jasper-Woodhull area helped identify a female victim at a hospital.
The sheriff's office identified the dead as Melvin Hershberger, 42; Sarah Miller, 47; Melvin Hostetler, 40; Anna Mary Byler, 60; and Elizabeth Mast, 46.
Walsh reported from Albany.
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