Michigan trucker’s trial opens on issue of visibility

Chain-reaction crash in 2011 killed 3 on I-475

John N. Tucker, a Flint, Mich., truck driver, is on trial in Maumee Municipal Court in connection with the deaths of three people who were killed in a crash on I-475 in 2011.
John N. Tucker, a Flint, Mich., truck driver, is on trial in Maumee Municipal Court in connection with the deaths of three people who were killed in a crash on I-475 in 2011.

When Lucas County Deputy Sheriff Gary Lofgren arrived at the scene of what would turn out to be a deadly chain-reaction crash on I-475, it was dark outside, but he said he could see a half-mile or so ahead of him on the well-lit stretch of highway.

On the witness stand in Maumee Municipal Court on Wednesday, Deputy Lofgren testified that a black pickup that was sitting sideways in the right northbound lane “was discernible” to him that morning.

Just whether the truck was discernible to John N. Tucker is a looming question in the jury trial of the Flint, Mich., truck driver, which got under way Wednesday. Mr. Tucker, 66, is charged with three counts each of vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter.

Maumee Municipal Prosecutor John Arnsby told the jury of six men and two women that Mr. Tucker slammed into the black pickup just before 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, 2011, killing its owner, James South, 68, of Monclova Township, and two “good Samaritans” who had stopped to help Mr. South. His pickup had hit a truck while merging onto the interstate six minutes earlier.

Mr. South was killed on impact. Dale Barnhiser, 52, of Grand Rapids, Ohio, was thrown from his motorcycle into a field, and Jodi Lubas, 40, of Maumee was found dead on the roadway, the prosecutor said.

A third driver who had stopped to help, Diana Dixon, 48, of Coraopolis, Pa., survived the crash after jumping from the freeway viaduct and falling to the Ohio Turnpike median below to avoid being struck.

“Do you remember back when you were a young driver and you heard your parents telling you, ‘Keep your eyes on the road. Pay attention to that roadway,’” Mr. Arnsby asked during his opening statement. “… For the matter before you today, there’s one person — a professional nighttime truck driver by the name of John Neal Tucker pulling double trailers — who failed to follow that simple advice, and it cost dearly. It cost the lives of three people.”

Mr. Arnsby said that while it was dark that morning, that darkness was no excuse, no defense, particularly for a man who routinely drove the same nighttime route between Flint and Columbus.

Defense attorney George Gerken said the opposite: “If you have a dark object in a dark roadway and you can’t see it in time to stop, it’s not reasonably discernible,” Mr. Gerken said. “…Through no fault of his own, John didn’t have time to avoid this accident.”

To find Mr. Tucker guilty of vehicular homicide, a first-degree misdemeanor, Mr. Arnsby said the jury would have to find Mr. Tucker was negligent and showed a “substantial lapse of due care.” To convict him of vehicular manslaughter, a second-degree misdemeanor, prosecutors would have to prove the deaths resulted from Mr. Tucker failing to maintain an assured clear distance.

Sgt. Christopher Kinn, a crash scene investigator for the Ohio Highway Patrol, described for the jury the way he analyzed tire marks, gouges in the road, and the final resting places of each vehicle, among other factors, to determine just what happened.

“It’s hard to quantify how bad this crash was,” he told the jury, explaining that he sees so many bad crashes. “This was really bad. The scene was kind of a mess.”

Sergeant Kinn confirmed under cross-examination by Mr. Gerken that there was no evidence Mr. Tucker was speeding, talking on the phone, texting, sleeping, or driving under the influence.

Visiting Judge Charles Abood said the trial would resume at 9 a.m. today.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.