By Felicity Taylor
A Roanoke man is facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with an explosion at South River Market nearly two years ago that killed four people.
Last week, a Rockbridge County Circuit Court special grand jury indicted Phillip Ray Westmoreland, 51, on four charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Roger Lee Roberts, 69, the market’s owner, his son Kevin Tate Roberts, 44, granddaughter Samantha Gail Lewis, 27, and long-time friend and patron, Paul Dewayne Ruley, 54, died in the explosion and fire on May 10, 2019.
Westmoreland is a delivery driver for Webb’s Oil Corporation, which is based in Roanoke. David Webb, the president of Webb’s Oil, did not respond to requests for comment.
At a bond hearing earlier this week, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jared Moon said Westmoreland made a fuel delivery to South River Market. While filling up the tanks, Moon said, Westmoreland failed to follow proper safety procedures and spilled 800 gallons of gasoline in an open-air dyke behind the market.
Moon said Westmoreland “simply left” the market. About 20 minutes later, the market blew up and caught fire, according to court records.
“As fully licensed truck driver trained to deliver HazMat materials with over 15 years of experience delivering petroleum products, it was his responsibility to ensure and verify that no overfilling or spillage had taken place,” the prosecutor said in a hearing earlier this week.
Hazel Roberts, the widow of the market’s owner, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Westmoreland and Webb’s Oil seeking $6 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages, according to court records.
In the lawsuit, she said her family “suffered and will continue to suffer unbelievable sorrow, mental anguish, and loss of solace.”
In April 2020, the case was nonsuited, which means she voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit while reserving her right to re-file the lawsuit.
Her lawyers, Benjamin Byrd and David Natkin, each declined to comment.
Lexington defense lawyer Robert Dean is representing Westmoreland. He did not respond to requests for comment.
In a news release, Moon said he asked the Circuit Court to convene a special grand jury in late 2019 to examine Virginia State Police’s investigation into the explosion’s origin and cause. But the coronavirus pandemic led to a statewide shutdown of courts, which delayed the grand jury’s work.
The special grand jury had planned to begin its work in December, but the pandemic again delayed its meeting. The panel finally convened earlier this week and returned the indictments against Westmoreland.
During a hearing earlier this week, Circuit Court Judge Chris Russell set Westmoreland’s bond at $20,000. An official at the Rockbridge County Regional Jail confirmed the bond was paid and Westmoreland was subsequently released. A trial date hasn’t been set.
If convicted of all charges, Westmoreland faces up to 40 years in prison.