Thursday, September 25, 2003

Decision awaited on blame in crash

Rider accused of jerking the wheel

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WILMINGTON - The driver of a car that crashed last year along Ohio 28, killing four of its six teen occupants, testified Wednesday in Clinton County Juvenile Court that she didn't remember much of what happened.

The Goshen Township resident, now 18, testified for the prosecution in the reckless homicide trial of the front seat passenger, a Loveland teen accused of jerking the steering wheel and causing the crash. The girl said she remembered smoking marijuana while driving.

She also admitted that the car was going faster than 70 mph, and that none of her four back seat passengers wore seat belts.

But when asked if she ever hit the brakes after trying to correct the car's course, the driver responded: "That whole day is foggy to me. I'm sorry."

The girl, who was 17 at the time of the 2002 crash, pleaded guilty in May to charges of speeding and operating a vehicle under a suspended license.

She is serving an undetermined amount of probation and was also ordered to serve 250 hours community service. Her license has been suspended for two years.

She said Wednesday that her front seat passenger, an 18-year-old Loveland man, jerked the steering wheel - causing the packed Geo Prizm to swerve to the left. She attempted to correct the car's direction, but it struck a fence post and then a tree.

Killed were Lester Smith, 16, of Loveland; Jennifer McRoberts, 16, of Goshen; Natasha Schnelle, 17, of Pleasant Plain; and Jessie King, 16, of Loveland.

Another prosecution witness, Laura Huhn, testified that she heard the Loveland passenger talking about the crash while he was in the hospital. She said her son shared a room with him and she could hear his conversations.

Huhn said she heard the teen say he jerked the steering wheel and he knew someone would be charged. She said she heard him say that it was "his word against (the driver's)."

The defense argued that the teen was not mature enough to understand the consequences of his actions and instead should be charged with negligent homicide, rather than reckless homicide.

The defense also contended there is not enough evidence to prove he grabbed the wheel.

Kim Schnelle, the mother of Natasha Schnelle, wept outside the courthouse Wednesday.

She wondered if the families would ever know what really happened inside the car.

"I hate the word 'accident,' " she said. "This was no accident. Every decision made in that car was deliberate. She chose to speed. She chose to smoke pot. They chose not to wear seat belts.

"The truth is all we have left. We want someone to tell the truth," Schnelle said.

Opposing sides rested Wednesday. Clinton County Juvenile Court Judge G. Allen Gano will issue a written decision.


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