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Published: Tuesday, 5/22/2001

Trucker is charged in deadly I-75 accident that killed 3

BY GEORGE J. TANBER AND CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Charged with reckless homicide and aggravated assault in the Sunday traffic deaths of three Illinois tourists, 76-year-old truck driver Calvin Prescott showed little emotion yesterday morning in Toledo Municipal Court, where Judge Amy Berling set bail at $25,000.

Mr. Prescott was southbound on I-75 about 5:15 p.m. near the Expressway Drive exit in North Toledo when he rammed into the rear of a van driven by James L. Lenzie, 38, of Essex, Ill., that apparently had slowed for a construction zone.

Three passengers in the van's rear seat - Mr. Lenzie's son, James R. Lenzie, 16, and Donald Bookwalter, 47, both of Essex, and Mr. Bookwalter's son, Travis Bookwalter, 22, of Sedalia, Mo., died shortly after impact.

Mr. Lenzie and Richard Sorenson, 42, of South Wilmington, Ill., were in serious condition last night in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center.

The group was returning home from Port Clinton, where they had been fishing for walleye on Lake Erie. They were headed to the Ohio Turnpike, but had gotten lost and ended up on southbound I-75, Toledo police said. As Mr. Lenzie, driving Donald Bookwalter's van, approached the Expressway Drive exit, signs warned motorists to prepare to merge into a single lane for bridge reconstruction near Phillips Avenue.

Witnesses estimated that Mr. Lenzie had slowed to about 15 mph when Mr. Prescott, traveling about 50 mph, according to witnesses, struck the van, pushing it 500 feet off the roadway and up a grassy embankment before it stopped.

Mr. Prescott told police he glanced down, looked up, saw the van, and hit his brakes. The force of the collision reduced the van filled with fishing gear to a third of its original size, requiring firefighters to remove its roof to reach the victims.

Police do not consider excessive speed a factor in the accident and do not believe drugs or alcohol were involved.

After the accident, Mr. Prescott, of Ridgeville, Ind., who was not injured, voluntarily submitted to a drug test in St. Vincent. The results could be available today, police said. Mr. Prescott passed an alcohol breath test Sunday, Officer Jeffrey Scott said.

Mr. Prescott operated a trailer registered to a Winchester, Ind., company. Police said the cab belongs to Mr. Prescott, who has been a self-employed trucker 50 years. He was driving his empty rig home after he had made a delivery of silica to Detroit, Lt. Louis Borucki said.

Police said Mr. Prescott had no pending charges or any apparent health problems.

Police are investigating Mr. Prescott's background and his log book, which was retrieved from the truck, Lieutenant Borucki said.

Mr. Prescott was released from the Lucas County jail after posting bail yesterday afternoon. At the hearing, he was charged with three counts of reckless homicide and two counts of aggravated vehicular assault.

Prosecutors argued for $25,000 bond for each of the charges. But Mr. Prescott's court-appointed attorney, Jim MacHarg, successfully argued for the lower bond, which Judge Berling attached to the death of the Lenzie youth.

“There are no aggravating circumstances. This is an accident, not a criminal activity,” Mr. MacHarg said.

Mr. Prescott stood impassively before Judge Berling with his hands folded across his brown jail jumpsuit. He did not comment. Three members of his family attended the hearing, but they declined to be interviewed. Mr. Prescott is expected to appear at a preliminary hearing Friday in municipal court.

If convicted of the felony charges, Mr. Prescott could serve up to five years in jail on each count. His age isn't a factor in the case, Officer Scott said.

“There's no age limit to operating a vehicle. He can continue operating a vehicle if he's healthy,” Officer Scott said.

Preliminary autopsies on the Bookwalters and the Lenzie youth indicated they died of blunt force injuries, the county coroner's office said. Relatives of the injured men, in Toledo yesterday, declined comment.

Residents of Essex and South Wilmington, neighboring farm communities about 55 miles southwest of Chicago, were struggling yesterday to deal with the sudden loss of three people.

Much of Essex, a village of 800 people, turned up at the Bookwalter home Sunday night, said Kathy Patterson of Patterson Funeral Homes in nearby Braidwood. She said the group had been friends for years and shared a love of hunting and fishing, which took them to Lake Erie for the weekend.

The Lenzie youth was a sophomore at Reed Custer High School, where he played on the football team. School officials canceled a planned pep rally for the school track team yesterday and turned its attention to helping grieving students.

“The outpouring of caring and the bonding of family and friends has always been remarkable here,” said Principal Bill Freeman.

Donald Bookwalter was a laborer for a construction company and was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. Travis Bookwalter, who had been recently married, lived on the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. He was honorably discharged from the Air Force and was employed on the base as a maintenance technician.

The incident brought attention to ongoing road construction projects. Interstates in and around Toledo have been under continuous repair since 1995, and more work is planned for the next four years.

In a similar accident in October, 1998, a college student from Southfield, Mich., died in I-280 construction traffic after her stopped vehicle was rammed by a tractor-trailer driver who could not slow his rig in time.

Ohio Department of Transportation officials said they have improved construction signage and moved working hours to late night in order to improve safety and avoid accidents.

“We are paying a lot more attention than we used to,” said Joe Rutherford, ODOT's District 2 spokesman in Bowling Green. “The signs are more reflective at night. We don't allow faded signs or beat-up cones. We have work zone traffic managers.”

In the end, he said, it's up to the drivers.

“There's nothing we can do if someone deliberately chooses to disobey the signs, the speed limit, and not merge when they want to. It's a law enforcement issue.”

Since 1995, the transportation department has funded a special vehicle, known as a push truck, manned by Toledo police and stationed at local highway construction sites. The truck's presence is intended to warn drivers to move with caution through construction sites. Police said the truck is in service 13 hours a day during the week but not on weekends unless ODOT asks for it and pays the overtime for police. The truck was not in use Sunday, police said.

Toledo police said they will not be doing anything different as a result of the accident. “We will just keep doing what we are doing, patrolling, slowing down traffic, and watching for people who change lanes and those who cut through the berm," Lieutenant Borucki said.

Beginning Memorial Day weekend and running through the summer, money from the department's special traffic enforcement program grant will be used to put extra officers on area interstates, mostly on Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings. The program was put in place to deal with increased congestion, particularly Cedar Point traffic, not highway construction, police said.

The Daily Journal in Kankakee, Ill., contributed to this report.



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