No one will be charged with the destruction of the Main Street fountain after a violent crash last October.
Following a probable cause hearing Thursday afternoon in Nantucket District Court, clerk magistrate Don Hart ruled that the Nantucket Police Department did not present sufficient evidence to show that the suspect, Holdgate’s Laundry owner Michael Holdgate, was driving the white Chevy Silverado that crashed into the fountain on night of Sunday, Oct. 29.
“I can’t make the leap to say that evidence shows Mr. Holdgate was operating the vehicle at the time,” Hart said. “Every other element of the charges have been met. But we don’t know who the defendant is. I can’t issue a complaint at this time.”
Nantucket Police Department Det. Lt. Daniel Mack presented the case to Hart, including surveillance video from multiple locations and cell phone data that placed Holdgate in the downtown area less than an hour before the accident. He had sought to charge Holdgate with leaving the scene of property damage, malicious destruction of property, and vandalizing a historic monument. But the case, one of the most high-profile on Nantucket in recent memory, hinged on whether police could show that Holdgate was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and Hart was not convinced there was a preponderance of evidence demonstrating that allegation.
Mack made it clear that the police department believed the crash was no accident, but rather an intentional act.
"It was apparent to the officers that the truck drove directly towards the monument and crashed into it on purpose," Mack said.
Holdgate was represented by attorney James Merberg who told Hart “I have great respect for the Nantucket Police Department, but what they cannot do, and why you shouldn’t issue a complaint, is they can’t establish probable cause from any source that Mr. Holdgate was the operator.”
Shortly after the crash on Main Street in late October, Nantucket police officers located the wrecked truck behind Holdgate’s Island Laundry after following a trail of vehicle fluid from the bottom of Main Street to the Vesper Lane property, more than a mile away from the scene of the crash. They arrested Holdgate after he returned to the Vesper Lane property in another vehicle - a white Dodge van - while police were standing in the driveway. Holdgate was taken into custody and later arraigned on charges of drunk driving (second offense) and negligent operation of a motor vehicle, but was never charged with anything directly connected to the fountain’s demise. A breathalyzer test administered at 1:24 a.m. showed Holdgate's blood alcohol level at .14, Mack said.
During Thursday's hearing, Nantucket police presented surveillance footage from the Fisher Real Estate camera on Main Street, as well as Cape Cod Five’s Main Street office, Nantucket Cottage Hospital (located across the street from Holdgate’s Laundry) and the Nantucket Intermediate School. All of them showed the truck at various points during the night in question, but none revealed a good view of the driver. Two eyewitnesses to the crash described the white pickup truck, but could not identify the driver, Mack said.
A search warrant for Holdgate’s phone showed he was downtown at 9:43 pm, less than an hour before the crash. However, there was no data after that time, indicating the phone was either turned off, ran out of batteries, or wasn't moving, Mack told the court.
Much of Thursday's hearing centered around the 2019 white Chevy Silverado that was recorded smashing into the fountain. The truck, which sustained heavy damage in the crash, was registered to Holdgate's business.
As Merberg and Mack both disclosed during the hearing, there were allegedly numerous people - as many as seven, including Holdgate's Laundry staff - who were authorized to use the Silverado truck. On the night of the crash, after officers spotted Holdgate pulling into his driveway behind the wheel of a white Dodge van, he denied driving the wrecked truck and declined to name anyone who might have been, Mack told the clerk magistrate. But he added that Holdgate eventually brought officers to meet with everyone on the property - including family members and employees - and named people who could have had access to the truck.
Holdgate shared "numerous inconsistent stories about who could have driven his truck," Mack said.
Responding police officers talked to everyone who was at the property, but determined that all those who were interviewed had either been sleeping and/or showed no signs of intoxication - other than Holdgate, who they emphasized was uncooperative throughout.
During a follow-up interview days after the crash with Holdgate's ex-wife, Nantucket Select Board chair Dawn Hill Holdgate, Mack said police determined that she was in Las Vegas at the time of the Oct. 29th incident. Another Holdgate's Laundry employee told police he had returned on the 10 p.m. ferry that night and drove back to the business's staff housing on Vesper Lane in a silver SUV, which was confirmed by surveillance video. Other employees refused to talk to police or did not return phone calls in the aftermath of the accident.
Merberg honed in on this point.
"So you don't know, as you stand here today, whether or not other individuals who had access to the truck were driving that night, correct?" Merberg asked Mack.
"Correct," Mack responded.
Merberg told the court that body camera footage from the night of the crash showed police officers walking Holdgate up to the wreck of his business’s truck in the Holdgate’s Laundry driveway. He responded by saying “what the fuck?” repeatedly as he walked around the vehicle and asked if anyone was hurt.
"He’s suggesting by his questions that he doesn’t know what’s happened," Merberg said.
He added that Holdgate suffered no injuries, and had no keys on him at the time police arrested him.
A good portion of Mack's presentation to the clerk magistrate was spent reviewing the surveillance videos. The Nantucket Cottage Hospital camera pointed at the Holdgate's Laundry property on Vesper Lane provided police with a distant vantage point that showed the vehicles coming and going on the night of the crash. Mack noted the following points in the video:
- 10:28 p.m.: a white pickup truck leaves the property, drives on to Vesper Lane, and takes a left onto Surfside. Police believe that same truck crashed into the fountain on Main Street less than 10 minutes later at 10:37 p.m.
- 10:41 p.m.: a white pickup truck with "significant front-end damge" drives by Holdgate's Laundry
- 10:47 p.m.: the same truck again appears from the same direction and this time it pulls into the driveway of Holdgate's Laundry.
- 10:50 p.m. to 11:33 p.m. flashes of taillights and other lights turning on and off at the property can be seen on the video, Mack said.
- 11:33 p.m. a white van is observed leaving the driveway of the Holdgate's Laundry property, drives east on Vesper Lane, and takes a left on Surfside Road.
Mack then showed a video from the Cape Cod Five branch on Main Street and said the same white van could be seen driving past the crash scene at 11:45 p.m., indicating police believe Holdgate returned to view the area after ditching the truck on Vesper Lane.
In his closing statement, Mack emphasized that the cell phone data showed Holdgate in the downtown area prior to the crash, that the surveillance footage showed the truck pulling into Holdgate's Laundry after the crash and the white van leaving the property shortly afterward, along with Holdgate's uncooperative nature during the initial investigation.
While probable cause hearings have a lower standard of evidence compared to a jury trial - a preponderance of evidence versus reasonable doubt - clerk magistrate Hart said the police simply could not establish that Holdgate was behind the wheel at the time of the crash.
"The Nantucket Police Department has done a great job and looked at everything you could," Hart said. "We would all like to see the person who did that come to justice."
Holdgate is still facing charges of second offense DUI and negligent operation of a motor vehicle. That case remains pending in Nantucket District Court. But the destruction of the fountain, it appears, may remain unresolved.