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Man charged in deadly upstate crash

BENTON -- The man charged in a wreck that killed five Amish farmers in upstate New York had served prison time for stealing a Rochester police cruiser and leading pursuers on a 20-minute chase in 2006, authorities said yesterday.

Police said then that Steven Eldridge tried to back into the squad car during a traffic stop, struggled with an officer and then drove off in the cruiser. State records show he served 2 1/3 years in prison for auto theft.

Eldridge, 42, of Penn Yan, now faces homicide and drunken driving charges after his car sideswiped a van while passing a slow-moving tractor about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Benton, an agricultural community nestled among the Finger Lakes, about 40 miles southeast of Rochester.

The 13 Amish farmers in the van were part of a larger group visiting farms to learn how they might inexpensively and simply extend the vegetable growing season. Five were killed; eight others and their driver were injured.

The accident happened soon after the group of close to 40 farmers -- Amish and others -- and Cornell Cooperative Extension employees took a break for lunch in Penn Yan. They were traveling to the second of two Mennonite farms that use plastic-covered "high tunnels" or "hoop houses," instead of more expensive and complicated greenhouses that use electricity, police and Cornell University spokesmen said.

The sheriff's office identified the dead as Melvin Hershberger, 42; Sarah Miller, 47; Melvin Hostetler, 40; Anna Mary Byler, 60; and Elizabeth Mast, 46.

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