By Ed Runyan
The Ohio State Highway Patrol has released the name of the driver of a car they believe struck and killed a 55-year-old Howland woman Sunday night on King-Graves Road.
Patrick Niess, 20, of Warren, is believed to have fallen asleep at the wheel of his 1997 Nissan Pathfinder while westbound at 9:52 p.m. His car is believed to have gone into the ditch on the north side of the road.
The next morning, police found the body of Antoinette Ross, 55, of Hunt Club Trail in Howland in the same area where the Niess vehicle entered the ditch.
“We are certain that Mr. Niess did not realize that he struck Mrs. Ross,” Lt. Brian Holt, commander of the patrol’s Southington Post said in a news release. “Mr. Niess was not under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the initial investigation.”
The patrol still is awaiting results of forensic testing to determine whether the Niess vehicle struck Ross. If the results show he hit her, the investigation will be turned over the Trumbull County prosecutor for possible criminal charges, Holt said.
Niess apparently fell asleep and drove off the road, striking the ditch, culvert and a traffic sign before coming to rest about 600 feet west of where Ross’ body was found, Holt said.
“We cannot conclusively say that Mr. Niess struck Mrs. Ross until the results of the forensic testing are completed,” Holt said. “In the event that the testing concludes that Mr. Niess’ vehicle did not strike Mrs. Ross, we will then complete two separate crash reports, exonerating Mr. Niess.
“Conversely, if the results conclude his vehicle did strike Mrs. Ross, we will then consult the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s office for possible charges.”
The death investigation began at 8 a.m. Monday, when a passer-by saw Ross’ body in the ditch and called 911. Ross was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Howland Police Department immediately recalled that it had responded to a one-vehicle crash in that same area the night before, Holt said. Investigators concluded that the Sunday night crash and Ross’ death were linked, though the highway patrol did not make those suspicions public while it continued to investigate.
Holt and Paul Monroe, Howland police chief, conferred at the site of the fatality, and Monroe requested that the patrol take over the investigation of the fatality and the Sunday-night accident “due to the probability of them being linked,” Holt said.
“It is the protocol of the Howland police to request the state patrol to investigate all serious-injury and fatal traffic crashes that occur in the township due to the tremendous resources and crash investigation experience they have available to them,” Monroe said.
Monroe, when asked about the crash and the fatality, referred all questions to the patrol. Monroe and Holt said Ross had not been reported missing.
On Monday, the patrol took possession of Niess’ vehicle and collected evidence. Results of forensic testing still are pending, Holt said.
The patrol also is investigating to determine why Ross was walking alone at night in that location, about a mile from her home, Holt said. King-Graves Road at that location, which has a narrow pavement berm and almost no gravel berm, is not a good place to walk, Holt said.
A resident living near the accident scene said his mailbox gets knocked down about twice a year and that relatively few people walk along the road.
Ross was the wife of John A. Ross II of Howland, a mother of four and a Niles McKinley High School graduate. She was a registered nurse at St. Joseph Health Center in Warren. Starting in 2004, she was a nurse at Howland Glen Elementary School in Howland.
John Diehl, coach of the Howland High School girls basketball team, where her daughter Lexi plays, called Antoinette “Toni” Ross “a great supporter of the team” who “never said a bad word [and] always asked what she could do to help.”