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Published: Thursday, 1/3/2008

Dad who survived wrong-way crash inspects van, seeks closure

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One of the first things Danny Griffin did yesterday after he was released from the hospital was to visit what remains of the van he was driving Sunday night when his wife and four of his children were killed.

Inside was one of Sydney Griffin's dolls, some purses his other daughters liked to play with, a teddy bear, and a few photos.

Mr. Griffin, who broke down at one point, said he was seeking closure.

"They're hurting really bad," said Toledo police Sgt. Richard Murphy, who was with Mr. Griffin and his family yesterday at the North Toledo impound lot where the van was taken after the deadly crash.

The Adrian, Mich., man accused of crashing a pickup nearly head-on into the Griffins' van while driving the wrong way on I-280 was arraigned yesterday in Toledo Municipal Court on five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.

According to court records, Michael Gagnon had a blood-alcohol level of 0.254 percent more than three times the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving in Ohio at the time of the accident.

The 24-year-old said little in court yesterday. Judge Michael Goulding set his bond at $1.25 million. Several of Mr. Gagnon's relatives, including his parents, filled the first two rows of the courtroom; two females cried as they left yesterday. Mr. Gagnon's family declined to comment after the hearing.

Killed in the collision were Bethany Griffin, 36, Jordan Griffin, 10, Lacie Burkman, 7, Haley Burkman, 10, and Vadie Griffin, 8 weeks old. Beau Burkman was injured in the crash and released from St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center Monday; Sydney remained there in serious condition last night.

The Griffins were on their way home to Maryland after visiting relatives in Michigan when the crash occurred about 11 p.m. Sunday.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she met with Mr. Griffin after the arraignment to discuss the case, but she declined to divulge details. Rick Sanders, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Gagnons, said they are understandably upset and are praying for the Griffin family.

"They're pretty distraught," he said. "[Mr. Gagnon] was distraught as well, probably over his own situation and the situation of all the people that suffered."

If convicted, Mr. Gagnon could be sentenced to a maximum of 40 years in prison.

Police said the crash occurred within minutes of Mr. Gagnon entering the freeway headed the wrong way.

Autopsies yesterday showed Mrs. Griffin died from multiple injuries to her head, chest, and abdomen; Jordan and Lacie each died of a broken neck, and Haley and Vadie died of massive head injuries, according to Dr. James Patrick, the county coroner.

Mr. Sanders said he visited Mr. Gagnon briefly yesterday morning at the county jail to see how he was doing. Mr. Gagnon remained on suicide watch last night in the jail.

"I was really trying to make sure he knew his family was supportive and loved him and would be coming to see him as soon as they could," Mr. Sanders said.

During the arraignment, Mr. Gagnon told the judge he was a self-employed construction worker and asked that a public defender be appointed to represent him. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.

Mr. Gagnon is the registered builder for the construction business he and his brother, Samuel Gagnon, operate as partners, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Mr. Gagnon's driving record with the Michigan secretary of state's office shows that he had a valid license with no points at the time of the crash. His license has been suspended twice once in 2002 for a registration or plate violation, and in May for no proof of insurance. It was reinstated in October.

Mr. Gagnon also has two speeding tickets on his record and a charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol.

Pastor Lisa Arrington of St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church in Parkville, Md., said Mrs. Griffin and her children have been longtime members of the church. Mrs. Griffin

taught Sunday school and Lacie, Haley, and Beau performed in this year's Christmas program.

Pastor Arrington said many community members in the Baltimore suburb have asked how they can help the family.

"God is pulling people together for support and strength and love in the midst of something unimaginable," she said in a telephone interview.

Relatives of Mr. Gagnon console one another in a court hallway after his arraignment. Relatives of Mr. Gagnon console one another in a court hallway after his arraignment.
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A fund for the family has been set up at the church, the pastor said.

Pastor Arrington also said a small memorial of stuffed animals outside of the Griffin's home in Parkville is continuing to grow. Candles will be lit at this weekend's worship services in memory of those killed.

A statement released yesterday by the Griffin family said: "We want to thank the community for all of their thoughts and prayers during this difficult time."

Local Toledoan Matt Nachtrab, who has no connection to the Griffin family, said the accident has affected several families and he wanted to do something to help.

"If Toledo can unite and show, Hey we do not like that this happened and we're trying to help you guys out any way we can,' I think it'd be good for Toledo," he said.

Contact Laren Weber at: lweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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