Leader Blues

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TOP STORY >>Driver faces charges for accident on overpass

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Arraignment has been set for the operator of a loaded gravel truck that slammed into two stopped pickup trucks in February, launching them through the Hwy. 67/167 overpass guardrail in Jacksonville, then landing on top of them, killing a 34-year-old Ward man in the process. Donald Ray Watkins, 35, of Cabot faces a misdemeanor negligent homicide charge and four counts of third-degree battery when he is arraigned Dec. 27 in Circuit Judge Willard Proctor’s court, according to Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rob Berry.

Berry said Watkins, who had prescription drugs in his blood stream at the time of the accident, faces a $1,000 fine and one-year jail sentence on each of the five counts. Jerry Justice, his wife Monica and his mother were among four people transported to area hospitals after the collision on southbound Hwy. 67/167. Justice, driver of a black 1995 Ford pickup truck, was pronounced dead at the scene of injuries sustained when the Burns Trucking Freightliner dump truck hauling gravel from Bald Knob to North Little Rock came upon stopped traffic and swerved into the right lane, starting a chain reaction accident, slamming the two smaller trucks off the overpass and crashing down with them, according to the State Police’s preliminary fatal- crash summary and a statement by a state trooper working the accident.

Watkins had Diazepam, Nordiazpam and Trazodone in his blood, according to an April 4 state Crime Lab report, but no alcohol. The report noted that the quantities in his blood were “consistent with values widely considered to be normal or therapeutic.” The report did not say whether or not the quantities in question could have impaired Watkins driving and contributed to the accident. A pharmacist who asked not to be identified said that Diazepam—a generic Valium—and Trazodone used together could be “really sedating,” and should not be taken at the same time. Each would carry a warning not to operate heavy equipment or machinery, the pharmacist said.

The Nordiazepam was the Diazepam that had already been metabolized, said the pharmacist. Trazodone is an antidepressant used for sleep or for pain control. “Careless prohibited driving” on the part of gravel truck Watkins contributed to the seven-vehicle accident, according to the narrative included in the report. In addition to the Justices, Danny Crawford, 29, of 254 Overbeck Lane in Romance and Tommy Simpson, 32, of 166 Hodge, Mountain Vernon, also were injured in a 1990 GMC pick up.

Three other vehicles involved in the accident stayed on the overpass and the occupants were not hospitalized, according to the report. Justice was a security guard at Arkansas Children’s Hospital for the past six years, according to a hospital spokesman. Traffic was backed up in the southbound lane because the state Highway Department had closed off one lane to drill for soil core samples in preparation for future work on state Hwy. 67/167, according to department spokesman Randy Ort. The closure of the one lane resulted in a slowdown or backup of traffic as the lanes merged.