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Published: 7/24/2007

DUI suspect in crash was driving with a suspended license

BY LAREN WEBER AND IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

PAULDING, Ohio The driver charged with causing a crash Friday that was linked to a later accident that killed five people was driving with a suspended license and had one prior drunk-driving conviction.

William C. Smith, 49, of 8137 U.S. 24, Crane Township, was convicted of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol in 1979.

On a prior occasion last year, records show Mr. Smith was pulled over and refused to take a Breathalyzer test. As a result, his license was automatically suspended in August for one year, according to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

He pleaded not guilty yesterday through his attorney in Paulding County Court on charges of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, failure to drive within assured clear distance, and driving with a suspended license in connection with the recent accident.

Mr. Smith was accused of rear-ending the car of Robert and Armelda Wells on Friday when it was stopped eastbound on U.S. 24, waiting to turn north onto Paulding County Road 73, authorities said.

Mr. Smith had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14, nearly twice the legal limit in Ohio of 0.08 percent, said Sgt. Ray Haas with the Van Wert post of the Ohio Highway Patrol. Mr. Smith could not be reached for comment last night.

Mr. Wells, 64, and Mrs. Wells, 60, were passengers in a car driven by a son, Timothy Wells, 15, who was driving with his temporary instruction permit. After the crash, authorities believed the driver was the couple s grandson but yesterday said he is their son.

Within an hour of the accident involving the Wellses and Mr. Smith, an Antwerp ambulance transporting the Wellses to a hospital collided with a tractor-trailer rig in Crane Township at the intersection of County Road 87 and County Road 176. The ambulance slammed into the truck driver s door, near the back of the cab, breaking the fuel tank and spilling diesel fuel. The rig caught fire.

The Wellses were killed, as were Sammy Smith, 64, who was driving the ambulance, and EMS workers Heidi McDougall, 31, and Kelly Rager, 25. The surviving EMS worker, Matt McDougall, who was married to Heidi McDougall, was released from Parkview Memorial Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., yesterday. He has declined to comment.

William Smith s attorney, E. Charles Bates, stressed yesterday that you just can t tie the two [accidents] together. He said his client, who is charged in connection with the first accident, can t legally be held responsible for the second one.

Paulding County Court Judge Tiffany Reighter Beckman initially ordered a sheriff s deputy not to release any court records regarding charges filed against William Smith to a Blade reporter who asked for the documents yesterday in accordance with Ohio s public-records law.

Judge Beckman later released only documents that are posted on the court s Web site. The reporter had been called into open session of her court to make a records request.

Authorities yesterday released the 911 tapes from both accidents. A woman in the Wells vehicle told a 911 operator that their vehicle had been rear-ended on U.S. 24. A witness also called 911 to report the first accident.

In the 911 call for the second crash, a man reported there s been an ambulance hit by a semi truck. At least one other person called 911 regarding the second crash.

One of the first people on the scene of the ambulance accident was Antwerp Police Chief George Clemens III, who was off duty at the time.

The chief and his wife were on their way home from Paulding Friday when they heard reports over a police radio of an ambulance involved in an accident about a mile and a half from them. He decided to proceed to what he thought was a minor accident.

It s probably the most horrific thing that I ve ever seen, he said.

A funeral service for the three Antwerp EMS victims will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Antwerp Local School. Visitation will be at the school Thursday from 2 to 9 p.m.

Services for Mr. and Mrs. Wells will be held Friday at 3 p.m. at the Smith & Brown Funeral Home in Hicksville, with visitation Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Staff writer Meghan Gilbert contributed to this report.

Contact Laren Weber at:lweber@theblade.comor 419-724-6064.



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