Houston man faces vehicular homicide charges in teen’s death

bpurser@macon.comSeptember 13, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Houston County authorities are charging a 45-year-old man with felony vehicular homicide following an April crash in which a 17-year-old was killed during a drag race.

Arrest warrants for Danny Ray Wheeler of Houston County also have been issued on misdemeanor charges of drunken driving, furnishing alcohol to minors, racing, speeding, weaving and failure to maintain lane, reckless driving and no seat belt. The warrants had not yet been served Friday, authorities said.

Wheeler is accused of supplying alcohol to minors during a birthday and after-prom party and initiating an illegal drag race that resulted in the death of Colten Winkler, a Houston County sheriff’s incident report stated.

The teenager was the front seat passenger in the 2010 Ford Mustang driven by Wheeler at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour on a 45-mph road, according to an arrest warrant. The driver of the other vehicle, Coty Robinson of Perry, has not been charged.

Wheeler, who lost a leg in the April 21 crash on Duke Road near its intersection with Toomer Road, had a blood alcohol level of .148 -- nearly twice the legal limit of .08, the sheriff’s accident report shows. Winkler’s blood alcohol level was .15, according to Houston County Coroner Danny Galpin.

Neither Wheeler nor Walter Sammons, a Warner Robins attorney whom Wheeler’s wife, Staci, said was representing them, could be reached for comment Friday. Wheeler, a construction journeyman employed in the Houston County school system’s maintenance department, is on medical leave, his wife said.

Why the delay in charges?

Shari and Mike Winkler, the teenager’s biological parents, had asked a close friend, Donna Thompson, to start an online petition for the governor and district attorney to investigate why charges had not been placed against Wheeler. More than 100 people signed the petition. Thompson contacted the Telegraph about the petition earlier this week.

“Thank God,” Shari Winkler said when she heard that the warrants had been signed. “I feel like justice ... the wheel is rolling. That’s why we have laws in our country because we all have to obey them. This one hit home.”

Houston County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Rape said the sheriff’s office sought the warrants after the investigation was completed. Sheriff’s Cpl. Sean Alexander, who investigated the crash, said the delay was the toxicology report.

The toxicology report, which looks at drug levels in addition to blood alcohol levels, took a few months to be completed by a GBI crime lab, Alexander said. He said the results came in while he was off duty and that he sought the charges when he returned to work Thursday.

The toxicology report also showed prescription drugs in Wheeler’s system at the time of the crash. Alexander declined to elaborate, stating that authorities are still looking into that aspect.

Whether others at the party will face charges related to the serving of alcohol, its consumption or in relation to drag racing by encouraging or watching it will be up to the district attorney, Alexander said. District Attorney George Hartwig, who indicated in emails there was not much he could say about the case, could not be reached for a telephone interview Friday.

Alexander said he would have shared with the Winklers that charges were pending had they contacted him. The sheriff’s news release issued at the time of the crash had indicated charges were pending.

The Winklers, who gave up custody of Colten Winkler and his twin sister in their youth, said the custodial parents kept them in the dark. The custodial parents, Dianna and Jim Winkler, who are Mike Winkler’s parents, could not be reached for comment.

Jordyn Winkler, Colten’s 18-year-old twin sister, expressed frustration about the petition and her estranged mother’s involvement. She had asked that the petition be taken offline.

“They dumped us off when we were two weeks old,” Jordyn Winkler said of her biological parents. “They have nothing to do with this.”

Colten Winkler and Tristan Wheeler, the youngest son of the Danny and Staci Wheeler, were close friends.

Shari Winkler said she understands how her daughter may feel and noted that she hasn’t spoken to her for many years. She said she gave up custody when the children were 12 and regrets it. She said Colten Winkler had reconnected with her and her husband and had been spending time with them.

And even though she may be judged harshly for having given up her children, Shari Winkler said she still loves them and only wants justice for Colten.

Shari Winkler said they were concerned that authorities were not willing to prosecute Wheeler due to the expense of caring for his medical injuries. She also acknowledged she wasn’t sure whether authorities would release information because she and her husband had relinquished custody of her son.

Right or wrong, she said, they decided to try an online petition to draw attention to the case and find out why charges had not been placed.

Houston County sheriff’s Capt. Alan Everidge, jail administrator, said the facility is not a hospital but that the jail has the ability to house handicapped inmates to some extent. Whether Wheeler will be able to post bond upon his arrest will be up to a judge. The warrant indicates Wheeler is not eligible for bond on the vehicle homicide charge prior to a court hearing.

Everidge said officials had not discussed housing Wheeler. “We have to deal with the prosecution of inmates based on violations of the law, not on what it’s going to cost,” he said.

The party and crash

According to the sheriff’s incident report, Staci Wheeler told authorities that she and her husband were hosting the party for the kids. Alexander said the number of people he was told attended the party ranged from 25 to 50. Staci Wheeler was asked if she knew minors were consuming alcohol.

According to the report, “She stated, ‘Yes, but I was in the bed reading a book and the next thing I knew Tristan was coming in telling me I better come quick.’”

Tristan Wheeler told authorities that it was his father’s idea to race his Mustang against Robinson in Robinson’s older Pontiac Firebird Phoenix. Robinson didn’t want to do it because he was afraid he’d lose, but agreed, the report stated.

The crash report

According to the accident report, Wheeler was racing westbound on Duke Road near Toomer Road and Ga. 224 outside of Perry.

“Too intoxicated to operate the vehicle safely” and approaching a curve at a high rate of speed, Wheeler failed to maintain the lane and traveled off the roadway, the report stated. The vehicle traveled 200 feet -- striking a wire fence and large, thick pine tree -- shearing the pine tree. The car rotated another 22 feet before coming to a stop.

The report noted felony charges were pending upon completion of the investigation.

Shari and Mike Winkler found parts of the wreckage over a large area at the crash site.

Friends of their son erected a white cross that was covered with signatures and messages.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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