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Published: Saturday, 5/10/2008

Gagnon guilty for deadly crash

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With each name, additional tears fell from the eyes of members of the Griffin family.

Jordan Griffin, only 10 years old, died of multiple blunt trauma. Her stepsisters, Haley Burkman, 10, and Lacey Burkman, 7; and her younger half-sister, baby Vadie Griffin, only 8 weeks, each died from injuries caused by the collision with an oncoming pickup.

The children s mother, Bethany Griffin, 36, was also a victim of the Dec. 30 drunken-driving crash that occurred as the family traveled home after a holiday visit to family in Michigan.

The painful reality of that winter night was evident in the faces of the Griffin family and in the eyes of the Adrian man convicted of causing their deaths.

Michael Gagnon, 24, was found guilty in Lucas County Common Pleas Court yesterday for a wrong-way crash on I-280 that killed five members of the Maryland family and seriously injured two others. He had illegal limits of both alcohol and marijuana in his system at the time, authorities said.

Gagnon pleaded no contest to five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and two counts of aggravated vehicular assault. He faces up to 50 years in prison when sentenced by Judge Linda Jennings on June 27. In addition to prison time, he will be ordered at sentencing to give up his driver s license for life.

This was an absolutely horrible tragedy, probably one of the worst I ve seen since becoming a prosecutor and when I was a police officer before that, Assistant County Prosecutor Jeff Lingo said after the morning hearing. It s something that you hate to see happen. Unfortunately, it did.

The deadly crash occurred just before 11 p.m. Dec. 30 on southbound I-280 near the Manhattan Boulevard overpass. Police said Gagnon s northbound pickup truck collided nearly head-on with the van being driven south by Danny Griffin, who was 36 at the time.

Mr. Griffin had just exited onto I-280 from I-75 and although he tried to avoid the collision, his vehicle was hit by the oncoming pickup truck. The combined speeds of both vehicles meant they crashed at rates between 120 mph and 130 mph, Mr. Lingo said. The family s minivan was split nearly in half.

In addition to the five family members killed, Sydney Griffin, 8, was seriously injured with a lacerated liver and closed head injury. Mr. Griffin suffered a broken vertebra.

A sixth child in the van, Beau Burkman, 8, received only minor injuries, including bruising from the seat belt. His injuries did not result in any charges against Gagnon.

Members of the Griffin family declined to comment after yesterday s hearing, but indicated they would speak when Gagnon is sentenced next month.

Letters to the Griffins

The five deaths were among 28 drunken-driving fatalities in Lucas County last year, according to statistics from the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Statewide, 486 people died on Ohio s roads as a result of drunken drivers.

Lucas County s numbers ranked number two in the state in 2007 after Montgomery County.

Gagnon had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal driving limit in Ohio and he had marijuana levels nearly three times the level of impairment at the time of the crash, Mr. Lingo said.

Tests showed Gagnon s blood-alcohol content was 0.178 percent. There were higher levels recorded, Mr. Lingo added, but they could not be used in court because the blood was taken for medical reasons. In Ohio, 0.08 percent is considered impairment for motorists.

Defense attorney Rick Sanders, who represented Gagnon, said his client is aware of the pain he caused and has written several letters to the Griffin family. The letters won t be delivered until the sentencing is completed. He added that the contents of the letters are between Gagnon and the family.

He knows how serious [this] is, he said. I don t think there was ever intent as you have in most criminal cases. But he realizes the devastation that he caused.

Tragedy unfolds

Gagnon had been at a family party earlier that night at the Rodeo Bar & Grill on Navarre Avenue in Oregon. His bar bill from the night, which stretched from about 6 p.m. to 10:22 p.m., included 5 buckets of beer and 10 shots of tequila, Mr. Lingo said.

He said he believed a bucket in this instance included five bottles of beer.

How much of that Gagnon drank is unclear, Mr. Lingo said.

What is known are the events that followed.

Instead of staying in one of the three hotel rooms rented by a member of his party, Gagnon left the bar. Mr. Lingo pointed out that the rooms were an indication that there was a plan reasonable thinking when he was sober that likely turned impaired when he was drunk.

Between 10:40 p.m. and10:45 p.m., Gagnon pulled into the drive-thru of a nearby Taco Bell. His confusion, slurred speech, and an odor of alcohol indicated to employees that he was intoxicated, Mr. Lingo said. They called Oregon police, who arrived just minutes after Gagnon grabbed his food and drove off.

More phone calls came in from motorists on I-280, Mr. Lingo said each reporting a pickup truck headed in the wrong direction.

At [10:55] p.m., [police] were notified of a head-on collision, Mr. Lingo said.

Officers and firefighters responding to the scene found twisted metal. They noticed Gagnon s reduced speech abilities, bloodshot eyes, and the smell of alcohol on his breath, Mr. Lingo said.

He told some witnesses that he was wasted, Mr. Lingo added.

A review of his record revealed that Gagnon never had been arrested for drunken driving before.

A deadly choice

Julie Leggett, executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving for northern Ohio, attended yesterday s court session. She said the fact that so many people have lost their lives at the hands of drunk drivers is horrendous.

The sad part about it is hindsight is always 20/20, she said. You could go back and can speculate what could have been different, but the fact remains that the choice was made and people died.

Gagnon s family, who had attended many of his court appearances, was not in court yesterday.

Family members also could not be reached by phone.

Mr. Sanders added that the Gagnon family is still interested in expressing its sorrow to the Griffin family, but understands that it will take some time.

Assistant County Prosecutor Tim Braun said sentencing is in the hands of the judge, but that the prosecutor s office will not oppose if the sentences for the assault charges which carry a prison term of one to five years each run concurrent to the sentences for aggravated vehicular homicide which are two to eight years each.

Mr. Sanders said Gagnon has expressed a desire to help others avoid the tragedy he caused. He said Gagnon hopes to one day speak to others about the devastating results of drunken driving.

He only hopes that when he is released [from prison], he is hopefully still young enough to make an impact, Mr. Sanders said.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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