Prosecutor Says Woodmore Bus Driver Was Driving Too Fast, On His Phone, When 6 Children Were Killed; Defense Says Small White Vehicle May Have Caused Wreck

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A prosecutor told a Criminal Court jury on Tuesday that a Woodmore Elementary bus driver was going too fast and was on his phone when six children were killed on Nov. 21, 2016.

Prosecutor Crystle Carrion said Johnthony Walker should be found guilty of all 34 counts he faces.

Attorney Amanda Dunn said the state's case was built on "conjecture" and was not fully investigated. She said an eyewitness to the wreck says a small white bus or van was coming in the opposite direction and got into the lane of the school bus.

Ann Jones Pierre, who was just behind bus 366 when it crashed on Talley Road in Brainerd, said she first saw the bus at the intersection of Talley and Midland Pike.  She said they pulled up to the stop sign at about the same time, with the bus on her right.

Ms. Pierre said the driver looked over at her and "he looked a little tense."  

She said he left the intersection "a little fast."  Ms. Pierre said when the bus went over a hill, she lost sight of it.  She said as she was coming down the hill, she saw a cloud of dust.  "At first I thought it was fire," she said.  

The witness said she saw where a mailbox had been knocked over on the right side of the road and a power pole had been clipped beyond that on the left side of the road.  She then saw that the school bus was lying on its side, wrapped around a tree in a front yard at a curve.

Ms. Pierre said it was "very quiet" at the wreck scene, then the driver opened one door and came outside.  She said the other door was too mangled to open. 

The witness said Walker went back in the bus and then carried out an injured child and handed him to two men who had arrived on the scene.

She said, "Then other children started coming out.  It was horror."

She said by this time some ladies in the neighborhood came down to help comfort the children, and one of them let children use her cell phone to call home.

She said emergency personnel and school officials then began to arrive.

Ms Pierre said the speed limit had been finally lowered on curvy and hilly Talley Road.  She said, "I have driven Talley Road for years and I respect Talley Road.  You don't speed on Talley Road."

Ms. Pierre said she did not see any other vehicles prior to the wreck. 

Michelle Brogdon, who lives nearby, said she was working in her yard when she "heard a bunch of kids squealing." She said, "It was really loud and really quick."

She said it caught her attention so much that she walked toward Talley Road and saw a school bus "zip by." She said it was going above the speed limit and was traveling so fast that the words on the side of the bus were blurry.

She said the bus swerved after a curve partway down a steep hill, then she saw a small white bus coming in the other direction. She said the smaller bus was "mountain driving" - going across the center line at times.

Ms. Brogdon said the small white bus stopped nearby and the driver got out. She said he was pacing around while talking on his cell phone. She said he was still there when she left about 5 p.m.

She said she gave a statement about the small bus that day, then was contacted by the lead investigator on the case, Adam Cavitt, a year after the crash.

Investigator Cavitt said in her initial statement Ms. Brogdon did not indicate the smaller bus may have been a factor in the wreck.

He said he was advised it was the type of bus used to transport the elderly for doctor visits. He said he checked with Alexian Brothers and interviewed their three drivers who were out that day. He said none of them was anywhere close to the wreck site. He said he also checked with Siskin, but was told it did not have that type bus.

The investigator said there was "no physical evidence" indicating the smaller bus was a factor.

He said there were several cameras on the bus. The jury was shown video of the Woodmore children getting on the bus that afternoon. They were also shown some footage of children in the bus, including a deceased child and a girl whose arm was pinned and who lost much of her arm.

Veteran traffic investigator Joe Warren said several frames from the bus video did show a white vehicle come in the opposite direction on Talley Road near the time of the wreck.

He said he did not believe the smaller vehicle affected the wreck, saying if it had come over into the bus's lane there would have been a head-on collision.

Investigator Warren computed that the speed of the bus at the time of the wreck was as high as 51 mph - much higher than the posted 30 mph limit.

He said the bus went out of control and into a slide. He said Walker "was no longer driving. Sir Isaac Newton was."

The investigator said he arrived at the wreck scene while emergency personnel were still removing children from the bus. He said it took over two hours to extricate some of the children from the mangled wreckage. Those on the bus ranged in ages from five to 11 years old.

He said he quickly spotted yawl marks on the roadway that told him the bus was going at a high rate of speed. He said, "This was first-year stuff. It was stuff the new guys could figure out."

The witness was asked why he performed a drag test instead of actually driving a vehicle at the same speed as the bus was traveling. He said that would have been too dangerous, noting that "the other guy ended up in a tree." He said, "My sergeant would not have been happy if I had wrecked a patrol car."

An officer who took Walker to the Police Services Center said it was decided to remove him from the scene, noting he "was pretty upset." He said Walker declined to give an interview.

He said Walker's phone "was blowing up" with calls to him. He said he allowed him to call his girlfriend.

Kiesha Nixon, who worked with Walker on his second job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center near the Volkswagen plant, said she briefly spoke with him on the phone around the time of the wreck.

She said when she called she did not know he was driving. She said she never talks on the phone when driving or calls others when she knows they are driving.

She said she asked him, "Are you working?" and he said, "Yes."

Ms. Nixon then asked, "Are you driving?" She said he again said, "Yes."

She said she then told him, "Drive carefully" and got off the phone.

The witness said she never heard any indication coming from the phone that he was driving a bus or that it had crashed.

The prosecutor said the call from Ms. Nixon was three minutes and 50 seconds. Ms. Nixon maintained they only talked briefly and said "he must not have hung up on his end."

Attorney Dunn noted that Ms. Nixon sent Walker text messages later that afternoon indicating she knew nothing of a wreck. She said she did not find out about the wreck until going back into work at Amazon.

Ms. Carrion told the jury from Clarksville, Tn., that Walker was driving 50 mph on the road marked for 30 mph.  She said that day, for some reason he went on a different route.  She said the curve where the wreck happened is difficult even for a small vehicle to negotiate.  Ms. Carrion said in addition to the children who lost their lives, others had to have limbs amputated, suffered traumatic brain injuries and had other injuries.  

She said no alcohol or drugs were involved.

Walker faces six counts of vehicular homicide,17 counts of reckless aggravated assault, seven counts of aggravated assault, use of a deadly weapon, reckless driving, putting the public at large in danger, and being on a cell phone while driving.

Walker was in jail for a lengthy time after the incident, but he is now free on bond.


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