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Ex-Fitchburg council candidate charged in crash that killed public broadcasting's Gene Purcell

A recent candidate for Fitchburg City Council was charged Tuesday with homicide by negligent driving for the crash last summer that killed Gene Purcell, the director of Wisconsin Public Media, as he rode his motorcycle to work.

Shawnicia N. Youmas, 31, of Madison, told police after the July 27 crash that a motorcycle driven by Purcell had cut in front of her on the West Beltline frontage road near Grandview Boulevard, where the Wisconsin Public Broadcasting building is located, according to a criminal complaint filed in Dane County Circuit Court.

But witnesses said the car Youmas was driving was speeding before the crash, which also knocked out a utility pole and cut power to buildings in the area.

Data downloaded from the airbag module of Youmas’ car found she was going 64.9 mph 1.5 seconds before the crash, in an area where the speed limit is 30 mph, the complaint states.

A traffic specialist with the Madison Police Department found that based on debris, tire marks on the road and gouge marks from the motorcycle, it appeared Purcell was westbound on the frontage road and was turning left into the driveway at 3319 W. Beltline, the public broadcasting building, when he was struck by Youmas as she tried to pass him on the left, according to the complaint.

Youmas is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 6.

Purcell was a longtime figure in public broadcasting in Wisconsin, and in 2018 he became director of Wisconsin Public Media, which is the parent organization of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, now called PBS Wisconsin.

An autopsy found Purcell died from blunt force trauma injuries sustained in the crash.

In February, Youmas survived a three-way primary for a seat on the Fitchburg City Council but dropped out of the race because she intended to move. That left former mayor Jay Allen to be elected to the seat in the April 6 general election.

According to the complaint:

The crash happened about 3:20 p.m. At the scene, Youmas told police she was driving and the motorcycle cut in front of her. Her car continued and crashed into the pole and rolled onto its side.

A witness working in a nearby building told police he heard a loud crash, looked up and saw a car airborne and hit a utility pole, causing the pole to snap in half and an electrical transformer to explode. The man said he had worked with Purcell for 20 years and knew he was trying to turn left into the driveway.

Youmas estimated she was going 35 to 40 mph behind the motorcyclist, who she said looked confused as he drove. She said the motorcyclist was stopping and swerving and appeared indecisive and did not have a turn signal on. She said she didn’t remember where she hit the motorcyclist.

One caller to 911 told police he saw Youmas’ car speeding before the crash and running through a stop sign on the frontage road at the Beltline ramp. He next saw the car after the crash.

Contacted at a hospital, Youmas said she had put a destination into her GPS, was driving toward it and didn’t notice the motorcyclist until just before the crash. She said she was unsure what he was doing, but he appeared lost and confused. She said she may have tried to pass him before the crash.

Street camera footage, though, showed Purcell’s motorcycle making its way westbound on the frontage road in a normal fashion. The silver sedan driven by Youmas then appears, traveling faster than other traffic, and going through a stop sign on the eastbound off-ramp to Todd Drive. The crash was not visible on the footage.

Data recovered from the airbag control module in Youmas’ car showed that five seconds before the crash, the car was going 57.2 mph, with the accelerator about three-quarters pressed. Her car was going 64.9 mph at 1.5 seconds before the crash.

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