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Prosecution rests; Franco defense witnesses testify about man leaving scene from fatal bus crash

WILLMAR -- The prosecution rested this morning, and the defense team began calling witnesses in the trial of Olga Marina Franco del Cid, 24, of Minneota. Franco is accused of a total of 24 criminal charges stemming from the fatal Feb. 19 school bus crash near Cottonwood.

Three witnesses -- James Blodgett, Fabian Marcial, and the defendant's cousin Luciana Franco -- testified that they came upon the accident along state Highway 23 and saw a person running away from the scene west along County Road 24.

Franco's defense team, led by Manuel Guerrero, has been allowed to argue that Franco's boyfriend, Francisco S. Mendoza, was driving the van and caused the accident. Two of the witnesses identified Mendoza by his photo during testimony. They said he was known as "Samuel" or as "Francisco" but could not provide either of his last names. Mendoza used the alias of Samuel Rivera Melendrez and is believed to be in Mexico, according to earlier testimony from an agent from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Marcial said he translated, into Spanish, questions for an emergency medical technician attending to Franco as she was waiting to be extricated from the van.

Luciana Franco testified that someone informed her that her cousin was involved and that when she got to Olga Franco, "she told me he left, he left running," she said through a court interpreter.

Keryn Vigil, of Minneota, testified that he was going to work in Cottonwood, and came upon a man running in the road. He said he picked up the man, whom he knew as "Samuel." Vigil allowed the man to stay overnight at his home, because the man didn't have the key to his own home.

Franco faces four charges of criminal vehicular homicide for the Feb. 19 deaths of four Lakeview School students: Jesse Javens, 13; his brother, Hunter Javens, 9; Emilee Olson, 9; and Reed Stevens, 12. Sixteen other children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15 years old, and another driver whose vehicle was struck by the bus, were injured in the crash. Franco is accused of 17 charges of criminal vehicular injury. The Lyon County case has been moved to Willmar on a change of venue.

According to court and State Patrol documents, the bus was southbound on state Highway 23 around 3:45 p.m. Feb. 19 when it was struck by a minivan allegedly driven by Franco. The crash happened at the intersection with Lyon County Road 24 just south of Cottonwood.

Franco, who is also known as Alianiss Nunes Morales, is also charged with a gross misdemeanor for giving a false name to a peace officer and misdemeanor charges for driving without a license and for not stopping at a stop sign.