A motorist arrested after a wreck that killed six Amish farmers in rural upstate New York pleaded not guilty Friday to aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter and drug charges.
Steven Eldridge, 42, entered his plea in Penn Yan, his hometown in the Finger Lakes region. The former garbage collector hardly spoke during his arraignment in Yates County Court.
No relatives of the victims or the seven Amish injured in the crash appeared during Eldridge's 15-minute court appearance.
"They're so forgiving _ they said it was God's will," said Pauline Kennedy, 80, whose son has four children from a previous relationship with Eldridge's wife, Tamara.
"I wish I had that kind of grace," added Cindy Galek, 42, who is a friend of Kennedy's and also attended the hearing. "I feel he should be locked away."
Defense attorney Edward Brockman told the judge he intended to enter psychiatric evidence on behalf of Eldridge. He didn't provide any specifics.
Eldridge was charged with 18 counts ranging from aggravated vehicular homicide, which carries a maximum 25-year prison sentence, to six counts of manslaughter. He also was charged with driving while impaired by drugs, a misdemeanor.
He was ordered to remain jailed on $125,000 cash bail.
Police say Eldridge previously served 2 1/3 years in prison for auto theft after stealing a police cruiser during a 2006 Rochester traffic stop and leading pursuers on a 20-minute chase.
Authorities say Eldridge was driving in Benton, 45 miles southeast of Rochester, on July 19 when he passed a slow-moving tractor on a curve and sideswiped an oncoming van carrying 15 people, 13 of them Amish from neighboring Steuben County who were visiting local farms.
The van careened into the tractor. Rescuers struggled for hours to free victims from the wreckage lodged under the tractor. Five farmers were killed, and a sixth later died of her injuries.
The victims, who ranged in age from 38 to 60, lived in Woodhull and Jasper in southwestern New York, where hundreds of Amish have settled in recent decades.
Killed were Melvin Hershberger Jr., 42; Sarah Miller, 47; Melvin Hostetler, 40; Anna Mary Byler, 60; and Elizabeth Mast, 46. Hershberger's wife, Elva, died several days later.
New York has seen a boomlet in new Amish colonies recently, driven by affordable rural farmland and proximity to traditional population centers. A study by researchers at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania found the Amish have established 10 new settlements in New York since the start of 2010. Total population has grown by more than a third in the past two years, to 13,000.