Opening arguments begin in Rockbridge County gas station explosion case

10 News has the latest details from the courtroom

ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, Va. – For more than 40 years, the name “Roger Roberts” has been synonymous with the South River community in Rockbridge County. He kept it fueled, fed, supplied, and connected at his neighborhood market.

“I went every morning for my cup of coffee and conversation,” said a longtime customer.

On May 10, 2019, everything changed.

Sometime after 9 a.m., there was an explosion at the store, and four people were killed, including Roberts.

“Roger was a kind, smart, funny man. He was a good guy,” said Hazel Roberts in court Tuesday. She is the widow of the late store owner.

Perhaps no one suffered a greater loss than Hazel Roberts – her son, Kevin, and her granddaughter, Samantha, both died.

Paul Ruley, a longtime customer, died as well.

Roberts spoke of the father-daughter duo in court with these words: “Kevin was shy until you got to know him. He loved his family. He had a quirky sense of humor, but we loved him anyway. Samantha was warm, talented. She loved her boys! You saw it in her face. They would run to her.”

Why did this happen to them? What went wrong that Friday morning? Those were the questions the Commonwealth’s Attorney is working to answer for the Rockbridge County jury.

“What happens when more than 800 gallons of conventional gasoline is spilled and then abandoned in close proximity to a country gas station during normal business hours,” questioned Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jared Moon.

In opening statements, Moon said Phillip Westmoreland delivered gas to South River Market sometime after 8 a.m.

Westmoreland worked for a Roanoke-based oil company. Roberts ordered the supply.

With more than 30 years of trucking experience and 8 years working with fuel, Westmoreland was a highly trained professional, Moon said.

The evidence will show Westmoreland failed to follow “simple and basic” delivery procedures, Moon said in opening, and he did not follow up on the signs that something was wrong before he left without warning anyone.

Moon glazed over specifics like refueling procedures and safety measures that Westmoreland either overlooked or handled carelessly, in his words. Experts will testify later in the trial to these.

Warning signs could be smelled in the air: gasoline.

A handful of witnesses and victims testified to a questionable dark, brown-colored liquid gushing from a pipe near the gas supply.

An off-duty Virginia State Trooper testified he and a buddy got close to the leakage but left once they did not smell gasoline. The testimony said the pair assumed the fuel technician, Westmoreland, was cleaning out the pipes and there was no threat.

Other witnesses report a ghastly gas odor that was so potent it brought tears to the eyes of some.

In the end, Westmoreland completed his work and left the market. Less than half an hour later, the market exploded.

“I could see the smoke from the driveway, and I just prayed,” said Hazel Roberts.

“When I went in and got my second cup [of coffee] and cracked the door, the fumes were all around me. I could see them in the air,” said one of the victims who testified.

“I was like halfway between the gas tank and my truck and that’s when the explosion happened,” said another victim.

It is alleged Westmoreland oversupplied the station with 800 gallons of fuel.

“The theory is that this man spilled 800 gallons. One gallon covers 300 square feet. 800 gallons would cover thousands and thousands of square feet. That is a lake. How would he miss that,” questioned defense attorney Rob Dean. “More importantly, how would Roger Roberts miss that?”

Dean said evidence will prove Westmoreland followed company procedure and that there may have been some existing issues at the neighborhood market.

Westmoreland was indicted by a grand jury on involuntary manslaughter charges.

The Commonwealth will continue to present its case Wednesday morning. The defense will follow upon their completion.

About the Author

McKinley Strother joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2020. He anchors 10 News at 6 and 11 on Saturdays and Sundays and you'll also catch him reporting during the week.

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