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Driver pleads guilty in fatal I-16 pileup
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An April 22, 2015, wreck on Interstate 16 in North Bryan claimed the lives of five Georgia Southern University nursing students. - photo by File photo by Bryan County Emergency Services

The driver of a tractor trailer involved in an April 2015 accident on eastbound I-16 in Bryan County that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students will spend five years in prison and five years on probation after pleading guilty to all counts against him in Bryan County Superior Court Thursday morning.

Killed in the wreck were Emily Elizabeth Clark, Morgan Jane Bass, Abbie Lorene DeLoach, Catherine McKay Pittman and Caitlyn Nichole Baggett. Brittney McDaniel and Megan Rebecca Richards were injured in the crash. All seven students, in two vehicles, were on their way to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savanah for the last day of their spring semester clinical rotations.

John Wayne Johnson, 56, of Shreveport, Louisiana, was indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, failure to exercise due care and following too closely. Johnson was driving a 2012 Peterbilt Model 587 big rig eastbound on I-16 when it crashed into traffic that had been backed up from an earlier wreck before 6 a.m. April 22, 2015, according to the indictment.

Johnson was given concurrent 10-year sentences on each count of first-degree homicide by vehicle with five of those years in prison and five on probation. Those charges carried a maximum of 15 years in prison each. He was given one-year sentences on each of the other four counts, also to be served concurrently. As a first-time offender, if Johnson successfully completes his probation, he would not end up with a felony record. He could have faced up to 93 years in prison had he sought a jury trial.

When asked by Judge Robert L. Russell III how he wanted to plead, Johnson simply answered “Guilty, sir.”

Johnson told the judge he saw the tail lights of vehicles stopped ahead of him as he approached the earlier wreck and recalls thinking “I should be stopping. Why am I not stopping?”

Johnson’s attorney, Edward Tolley of Athens, said that discovery during civil court proceedings in the matter showed that Johnson’s last cell phone text was around 2:30 a.m. the morning of the crash and his last cell phone call was around 3 a.m. that morning. There had been earlier speculation by attorneys for the families that Johnson could have been distracted by his phone.

Tolley went on to say that Johnson served 21 years in the Marines and has three grown children, including a daughter who is a nurse.

“That has made this case particularly difficult for him, his own children and grandchildren,” Tolley said.

Tolley also said Johnson has accepted full responsibility for the crash and that all drug and alcohol screenings taken afterward came back negative.

“I am so sorry. I would give anything to go back and change what happened,” Johnson said in a written statement read by Tolley. “I want the families to know that I remember their losses every day.”

Several family members of the victims were in the courtroom, but only Sharon Pittman, mother of Catherine McKay Pittman, chose to speak before the judge imposed his sentence.

“You still have family that you’ll be able to see the rest of your life,” she said, choking back tears. “I’ll never hear my daughter say ‘I love you’ again. I feel like my soul was wrenched out of my body that day. Shame on you.”

In April, the families of three of the students who died in the wreck — Baggett, Clark and DeLoach — reached settlements in lawsuits filed against Total Transportation, Total Transportation of Mississippi; New Mountain Lake Holdings LLC, the holding company of Total Transportation’s parent company, U.S. Xpress Enterprises; U.S. Xpress Inc.; U.S. Xpress Leasing Inc.; and Mountain Lake Risk Retention Group LLC, an insurer of the U.S. Xpress companies, all of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The suit also named Johnson as a defendant.

Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden announced July 6 that Total Transportation would not be prosecuted after agreeing to establish Brightstar Educational Foundation Inc., a Georgia nonprofit corporation, to honor the memory of the five nursing students who died and two others who were injured in the pileup.

The foundation was established and registered with the Secretary of State’s Office June 28 and provides an initial capitalization of $200,000, Durden said in a news release.

The stated purposes of the foundation will be to provide financial assistance to students applying for enrollment in nursing programs at Georgia colleges and universities, and to provide educational programs and content to Georgia schools and the public pertaining to driver education and safety.

“In light of Total Transportation’s decision, the district attorney has moved the court to nolle prosequi the indictment against them,” the news release says.

Total Transportation had been indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of criminal responsibility and serious injury by vehicle.

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