9 died last year in fatal crashes in Houston

bpurser@macon.comFebruary 10, 2014 

  • Map: 2013 Houston/Bibb Traffic Deaths

WARNER ROBINS -- Nine people lost their lives in seven fatal crashes in Houston County in 2013, including a teen passenger in an alleged drag race in which the driver is accused of felony vehicular homicide and drunken driving.

Misdemeanor vehicular homicide and related charges were brought against another driver after a 16-year-old passenger was killed in a June dune buggy crash on Davis Drive at Minick Street. The driver was accused of traveling too fast for conditions to make a turn and reckless conduct for operating the vehicle on a roadway when it’s not designed for street travel.

For comparison, 17 people were killed in 16 fatal crashes in Houston County in 2012. Crashes this year and last year are a mixed bag of circumstances and causes.

Houston County sheriff’s Lt. Clay Chambers, who took over the traffic division in mid-December, said while he could not speak about the 2013 fatalities specifically, he could talk in general about traffic accidents.

A main factor in most accidents is following too closely, while distracted driving also is a leading cause of crashes, Chambers said.

Impaired driving from alcohol and/or drugs also contributes, while some accidents are just plain negligence, he said. Sheriff’s Cpl. Justin Hall said distracted driving is often a factor in following too closely.

“You’re distracted, and the next thing you know, you’re eating that bumper,” he said.

Everybody has close calls while driving, but being distracted or impaired increases the likelihood of a crash, Hall said.

Improved safety features on vehicles are helping curb traffic fatalities, Hall said. Buckling up also increases the odds of greatly of surviving a crash, he said.

“Seat belts and air bags save lives every day,” Hall said. “You have to have both of them together.”

Alleged drag race

A Houston County grand jury handed down a 12-count indictment in November against Danny Ray Wheeler, who’s accused of vehicular homicide in the death of 17-year-old Colten Winkler.

The south Houston County man is accused of supplying alcohol to minors during a birthday and after-prom party at his Toomer Road residence and initiating a drag race. Winkler was the front-seat passenger in a 2010 Ford Mustang driven by Wheeler, who lost a leg in the April 21 crash on Duke Road near its intersection with Toomer Road.

The teenager was close friends with Wheeler’s son.

Wheeler, 45, was indicted on two counts of felony vehicular homicide based on underlying charges of drunken driving and reckless driving. Most of the other charges are traffic-related.

Wheeler had a blood alcohol level of 0.148 -- nearly twice the legal limit of .08, according to a Houston County sheriff’s report. Winkler’s blood alcohol level was 0.15, according to the coroner.

Wheeler is free on bond pending trial in Houston County Superior Court. His attorney, Walter G. Sammons of Warner Robins, declined to comment.

Head-on crash

Two people died in head-on crash shortly after 2 a.m. May 5 when the driver of a northbound 1992 Lincoln Towncar traveled into the southbound lanes and struck a 1992 Honda Passport. The Towncar’s driver, Evelena Adams, 34, and her passenger, Demarko Howard, 35, died at the scene of the crash on Houston Lake Road at Wrasling Way, according to a sheriff’s office news release.

Alcohol was considered a factor in the Towncar traveling the wrong way, authorities said.

The driver of the other vehicle, a 26-year-old woman, suffered serious injuries but survived. She had to be extricated from her vehicle and rushed to The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

Dune buggy incident

Seventeen-year-old Joshua Ryals, of Warner Robins, is awaiting trial in Houston County State Court on misdemeanor charges of vehicular homicide, driving too fast for conditions, reckless conduct, driving without a valid driver’s license and failure to wear a safety belt.

He’s accused of causing the death of 16-year-old Theresa Bridges of Warner Robins by traveling too fast for conditions in a 2006 China-Joyner Dune Buggy with tires not designed for roadway use as he attempted to turn left onto Minick Street from North Davis Drive, the indictment states.

Ryals and Bridges were ejected as the vehicle overturned. According to authorities, neither were wearing proper restraints in the 3:40 p.m. crash June 21.

Kristy Locke, first senior assistant public defender representing Ryals, declined to comment on his case.

Dirt bike crash

Marcus Jerome Allen, 27, was killed April 1 when he crashed his motorcycle into a utility pole.

Warner Robins police reports indicate he was driving his 1998 Yamaha Sunstar motorcycle off the roadway in a grassy area near the power poles near Booth and Wellborn roads in Warner Robins when he struck the pole. He was ejected from the motorcycle. His helmet, which was found near the scene, showed no signs of use, according to the incident report.

Tire malfunction

A single-vehicle crash Jan. 22 on Interstate 75 at mile marker 133 just south of Perry Parkway claimed the life of 54-year-old Miguel Rodriguez, of Homestead, Fla.

He and his wife, Ana Rodriguez, were traveling north about 3 p.m. on the interstate when the tire on their van apparently blew, causing Ana Rodriguez to lose control of the vehicle, according to Georgia State Patrol. The van struck a guardrail in the median, and Miguel Rodriguez was ejected from the vehicle.

Pedestrian struck

A 45-year-old customer service manager at Wal-Mart in Perry was struck and killed the night of Feb. 22 while walking on Ga. 341 west of Charles Gray Boulevard.

Joe Howard Craft, whose obituary noted he previously served in the U.S. Army, was stuck by a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado driven by a 21-year-old Hawkinsville man.

Craft was wearing dark clothing and was about three feet into the westbound roadway when he was struck, the Georgia State Patrol accident report stated. The Hawkinsville man told the trooper he did not see the pedestrian, later identified as Craft, until it was too late to stop. The report noted it was dark and raining at the time of the 9:51 p.m. accident. No charges were filed.

Double fatality

Kenneth Eugene Behrens, 64, and his wife, Margaret Elaine Behrens, 65, of Wilton, Iowa, died Dec. 29 when their Ford Escape, which had slowed for traffic on I-75 in south Houston County, was hit from behind by a Kia Forte driven at a high rate of speed by 19-year-old Benjamin Blake of Harrison, Ohio.

The impact caused the Escape to overturn into the guardrail, killing the couple. Kenneth Behrens was unrestrained and thrown from the driver’s seat into the passenger seat during the rollover, according to Georgia State Patrol.

Blake, whose vehicle also left the road and hit the guardrail, was not injured. Charges are pending the outcome of the investigation, Georgia State Patrol spokeswoman Franka Young stated in an e-mail Friday.

Telegraph archives were used in this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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