By Ed Runyan
Donald P. Williams Jr. of Austintown has pleaded guilty to 10 charges, including aggravated vehicular homicide, and will be sentenced to up to 31 years in prison for causing a March 31, 2010, accident that killed three Marine Corps recruits.
Mike Burnett, assistant Trumbull County prosecutor, said Friday in common pleas court that a dashboard video camera in the semi truck Williams was driving for Nick Strimbu Inc. showed that Williams, 46, did not react in any way as the truck crashed into the back of the recruits’ car, instantly killing them.
Burnett said a forensic toxicologist’s report showed that the Valium and similar drug nordiazepam in Williams’ body are capable of causing “mental confusion” of the kind seen in the video. Williams had no prescription for the drugs, Burnett said.
The video captures Williams’ face as his semi travels west on state Route 5 and approaches the Burnett Street intersection just west of Warren, the assistant prosecutor said.
The recruits — Zachary A. Nolen, 19, of Mineral Ridge and Newton Falls; Joshua A. Sherbourne, 21, of Southington; and Michael T. Theodore Jr., 19, of Howland — were in the back seat of a recruiter’s car that was stopped at the traffic light. They were headed to Cleveland to complete their enlistment.
Laureen J. Marinetti, chief forensic toxicologist for the Montgomery County Coroner’s office, reviewed the video and reported that, “Prior to the crash, the defendant appears to stare, as if hypnotized, which is a classic effect of the drug in his system,” Burnett said.
Williams’ truck hit the recruits’ car in the rear and traveled an additional 581 feet, hitting six vehicles, causing the three deaths and nine other injuries, Burnett said, adding that the truck’s brakes were never applied.
Williams’ attorney, J. Gerald Ingram, had argued earlier that his client had only a “therapeutic” amount of Valium in his system at the time of the crash.
Williams, of Bainbridge Avenue, will be sentenced in about five weeks, after the Trumbull County Adult Probation Department conducts a investigation of Williams’ background and criminal history. Judge Andrew Logan, who is presiding over the case, will decide the sentence.
Judge Logan said sentencing guidelines call for a mandatory prison sentence on three of the charges but not on the others. No specific prison term is mentioned in the plea agreement, and Burnett said he isn’t recommending a specific sentence yet.
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped three aggravated vehicular-homicide charges with a longer prison term.
The agreement notes that Williams was convicted in 1989 in Mahoning County of drug trafficking and drug abuse when Williams was 24 years old. Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicle records show Williams also was convicted of drunken driving three times — in 2000, 1992 and 1987. He was convicted in 2000 of allowing his daughter and other juveniles to use drugs or alcohol in an Austintown motel room, Mahoning County court records show.
The crash has spawned numerous civil suits that name Williams and the trucking company as defendants.
Michael Theodore and his wife, Laureen, parents of Michael T. Theodore Jr., said they take some comfort in knowing that Williams, by pleading guilty, has taken some responsibility for the crash.
It also brings about some level of closure for the family, they added. They were among dozens of victims and family who attended the hearing.
Also attending the hearing was Carl McDermott III of Masury, 20, who was a front-seat passenger in the Pontiac G6 in which the recruits rode.
McDermott said he has little recollection of the day of the accident because it left him unconscious, but he still suffers from dizziness and neck stiffness from his injuries nearly two years later.
“The after-effects are terrible,” he said. “I think about it almost every day — the thought that it could have been me.”