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Union County officials mum on possible indictment

Zoe Greszler • Jul 12, 2019 at 5:00 PM

Teresa Howell’s family appears to be no closer to getting the answers and closure they are seeking regarding the woman’s hit-and-run death.

As of Thursday afternoon, no criminal case could be found under the name of the driver accused of hitting Howell on Dec. 7 while she was working at her construction job on U.S. 33 in Union County.

The driver — Douglas A. Jones, 78, of Mansfield — is a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by the family in March, according to Union County Clerk of Courts records. However, a criminal case involving Jones has yet to appear on the website.

Union County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Justice told the Norwalk Reflector on Wednesday that he expected “to have an answer as far as charges” Thursday, adding the office is “getting close to getting answers for everyone.”

Justice could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The sheriff’s office completed its investigation and gave the results to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.

Prosecutor David Phillips declined to speak with reporters or to provide a comment Thursday afternoon.

An employee at his office said she wasn’t permitted to release information, including whether a grand jury session was taking place Thursday.

The clerk’s office also could not verify whether a grand jury was in session.

A grand jury is a group of citizens empowered by law to determine whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and that the suspect committed it. If so, then an indictment is issued — the formal filing of criminal charges.

The next step is an arraignment, at which the defendant typically pleads not guilty and receives a trial date. Bond matters also are discussed at that court hearing.

Sometimes grand jury results are announced immediately after the session. Other times, especially when there is reason to suspect the defendant might flee or somehow negatively affect the case, the results are kept secret until an arrest is made or court papers are served.

A representative for Howell’s employer, Lake Erie Construction, said he has not received any updates in the case during the past few months.

Safety director Ken Bleile added that the company hasn’t been notified of a grand jury case, nor was he aware of any employees who were requested to appear for or provide statements for a grand jury.

“I don’t know why it’s taking so long,” he said. “It seems like it’s taking forever.”

On Thursday, the courts issued Jones a subpoena, ordering him to hand over all documents and items related to the case. 

Prior to subpoena order, court records show that on June 27, Jones and his lawyers submitted a request to the county magistrate to “stay the civil proceeding.” An employee from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office said Phillips had no comment on the matter.

However, Norwalk attorney Russell Leffler explained the term.

The request is similar to invoking the Fifth Amendment in a court proceeding — a refusal to say something out of fear of self incrimination. Because the request was made through the civil case, it would not prevent any potential criminal charges that could come in the future, Leffler said.

“That might mean that he’s claiming he can’t talk, that he doesn’t want to be disposed in any potential criminal charges he may be facing from the matter,” Leffler said. “It might be that he’s saying he can’t speak because he might want to be pleading the Fifth, and they could be trying to gather information (that could indicate guilt in another potential case).”

As far as the subpoena, Leffler said he’s seen accidents lead to similar situations. In many cases, a truck driver could be ordered to submit a log record, which would track where, when and for how long he or she drove and slept. None of the items related to the civil case could hinder a proceeding with a potential criminal case, though, Leffler said.

“Prosecutors can do what they what,” added Leffler, a longtime Huron County Prosecutor. “They’re not bound by some civil lawsuit.”

Howell was killed Dec. 7 in a hit-and-run crash that happened as she worked with a crew fixing guardrail along a highway in Union County. Despite no charges being filed against Jones, her family sued him. The lawsuit, filed March 27, seeks unspecified damages against the Mansfield man and Estep Express Inc. trucking of Lexington, both in Richland County.

According to the civil complaint filed in Union County Common Pleas Court, Howell, of Lake Erie Construction Co., was working Dec. 7 in the southbound lanes of U.S. 33 in Jerome Township. Orange traffic cones and warning signs had been set out, but the lawsuit says Jones failed to observe the signs and drove through the cones, hitting Howell.

Jones failed to stop, according to the Union County Sheriff's Office investigation. He was found a few hours later in Columbus, which is about 30 miles away from the accident scene.

The tractor and trailer — both owned by Estep Express — were in a warehouse area at 1580 Williams Road; that’s where authorities have said Jones was heading to “deliver his load.” The semi was hauling baby food or baby formula.

This wasn’t Jones’ first offense of this nature. A similar pedestrian fatality caused by Jones occurred just four months earlier along a Pennsylvania highway, for which he was fired. The lawsuit says Estep “negligently or wantonly” hired him anyway.

After the second fatality, however, the federal agency revoked Jones’ license to drive a commercial vehicle, deeming him an “imminent hazard.” But with only six points on his Ohio license, he is permitted to keep his driver’s license — at least for now.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reflector staff writer Cary Ashby contributed to this story.

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