Wrong-way driver jailed; man's blood-alcohol was 3 times legal limit
By MEGHAN GILBERT and JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
So many people tried to stop him.
The young man at Taco Bell knew he was drunk, and called 911, but couldn't make him stay.
The panicked drivers along southbound I-280 swerved out of the way and used their cell phones to dial 911, amazed that a hulking pickup truck could be going the wrong way on the highway.
But they couldn't stop him.
Within eight minutes, he had killed five members of a family from Maryland, including four children — one of whom was just 8 weeks old.
"The guy might as well have had a loaded gun and shot those people," said Keith Allain, of Oakland Township, Michigan, one of the 911 callers.
Yesterday, the 24-year-old Adrian man — who records show had a blood alcohol level of 0.254 percent, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08 percent — was charged with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Michael Gagnon was being held last night at the Lucas County jail pending an arraignment tomorrow in Toledo Municipal Court.
The fatal accident occurred just before 11 p.m. Sunday on southbound I-280 near the Manhattan Boulevard overpass.
Police said Mr. Gagnon's northbound Ford F-350 collided nearly head-on with a Chevy Astro van being driven south by Danny Griffin, Jr., 36, of Parkville, Md.
Bethany Griffin, 36, Jordan Griffin, 10, Lacie Burkman, 7, and Haley Burkman, 10, were pronounced dead at the scene. Vadie Griffin, 8 weeks old, was taken to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.
Mr. Griffin was in serious condition yesterday at St. Vincent. Sidney Griffin, 8, was listed in critical condition, and Beau Burkman, 8, was discharged about 4:45 p.m., a hospital spokesman said.
Mr. Gagnon was treated for a jaw injury at St. Vincent. He was taken into custody after being discharged at 4:20 p.m.
The suspect, drunk after a night at an Oregon bar, swung through a Taco Bell on Navarre Avenue, then headed for I-280. But he drove past the ramp to northbound I-280. He drove above the highway on an overpass, then turned right onto the ramp used by southbound traffic exiting I-280 at Navarre.
The fatal crash took place about four miles away on the highway, just south of I-75 in Toledo.
'At 60 miles an hour, you can drive that in about three minutes, and that's all it took for him to kill five people,' Toledo police Deputy Chief Ron Spann said.
Chief Spann said Mr. Gagnon was aware the accident caused the deaths, and was uncooperative and belligerent when he spoke with investigators.
He has no previous drunk-driving convictions in Ohio or Michigan.
Samuel Gagnon, 21, Mr. Gagnon's brother, told The Blade last night from his home that "my prayers go out to the family," and declined further comment. The Gagnon brothers work construction together in the Adrian area.
Earlier yesterday Samuel Gagnon told the Baltimore Sun that his brother, wasn't supposed to be driving, but left the Oregon bar they were partying at without warning. He was driving Samuel Gagnon's truck.
"I don't know why he decided to leave," he told the Sun. "Everyone's in shock. We're supposed to be celebrating the New Year, but now I got to look forward to my brother in jail the rest of his life."
Where it started
Mr. Gagnon was believed to have been partying at the Rodeo Bar and Grill, a country music bar that shares a parking lot with the Holiday Inn Express at 3154 Navarre Ave.
Christine Shallal, general manager at the Holiday Inn, said three rooms were registered to Mr. Gagnon and his family for Sunday night. A manager and waitress at Rodeo Bar declined comment.
There were multiple reports that Mr. Gagnon smelled of alcohol, and a search warrant filed in Toledo Municipal Court noted that police observed Mr. Gagnon's speech was slurred, his eyes were glassy, and that he was acting agitated.
Mr. Gagnon also admitted to consuming intoxicants, and one or more liquor containers were found in his vehicle, according to the warrant.
"He's really drunk"
A restaurant employee at the Taco Bell at 2950 Navarre Ave. who identified himself as Jacob called Oregon police at 10:47 p.m.
"Hey, I work at Taco Bell and there's this guy he's driving like a black Ford F 250, it's like a diesel, and he's really drunk," the employee told dispatchers. "We've got him stopped in our parking lot, in our drive-through right now, and I was just wondering if you could send someone over here to either stop him or pick him up."
Oregon police went to the restaurant but just missed Mr. Gagnon.
Toledo police received its first call about Mr. Gagnon driving the wrong way on I-280 at 10:52 p.m. The accident occurred at 10:55 p.m.
The van carrying eight people — including the five who died — was driven by Mr. Griffin, who was returning to Maryland after visiting his father in the Livonia, Mich., area, authorities said. Before that they had been visiting family in the Redford, Mich., area for the holidays.
"Such great people"
Sabrina Hauf, who lives in Parkville — a Baltimore suburb — and has children who attended school with the Burkman children, said in an e-mail to The Blade that "our community is absolutely distraught by this tragedy and losing such great people."
"It is so hard to believe that we will never see them walking through the halls of Carney Elementary again," Ms. Hauf said.
Ms. Hauf described the family as a blended family, in which the Burkman children were from Mrs. Griffin's previous marriage and the older Griffin children belonged to Mr. Griffin.
Bethany and Danny Griffin are "absolutely fantastic parents," said Jason Starin, a family friend from Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Griffin enjoys playing ice hockey and is a devout Detroit Lions fan, and Ms. Griffin loved the Baltimore Ravens, Mr. Starin said.
"It's just an amazing family and it's going to have to recover," he said.
VIEW: Complete transcripts of 911 calls
HEAR: 911 audio
ALSO ONLINE: Read related story on rare, but deadly, freeway crashes
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A horrific scene
It appears that Mr. Griffin and Mr. Gagnon tried to swerve to avoid the collision, but the heavier pickup sheared off the passenger side of the minivan, causing several passengers to be thrown from the vehicle.
Remnants of Christmas wrapping were strewn about the scene, as were toys, stuffed animals, luggage, and baby effects, including a damaged infant seat surrounded by pink blankets.
Lucas County coroner's investigator Walt Biegala, who responded to the accident scene, said it was horrific.
"They were just kids, and it tore me apart," he said.
Most of the victims had head and body injuries and some also suffered broken bones. Autopsies are planned for tomorrow.
"I've been doing this for 40 some years with the police department and with the coroners office and this is one of the worst I've seen," he said. "It looked like a bomb blast you see in Iraq on the news."
Police said I-280 south was closed until 3:20 a.m. as they cleaned up the wreckage.
Dr. Allain was one of several motorists on southbound I-280 who called 911 after seeing Mr. Gagnon's pickup truck headed north in the wrong lane.
"The guy was straddling the left two lanes — the fast lane and the middle — and I was in the right lane," Dr. Allain recalled yesterday.
Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner released a statement yesterday extending his thoughts and prayers to the family of Danny Griffin and reminding people to be safe this holiday season.
"The tragic accident late last night on I-280 should serve as a stark reminder to all citizens to not drink and drive as we wrap up the 2007 holiday season," he said. "The deaths of five people, including four children, need not have happened had one individual had the common sense to not get behind the wheel after he'd been drinking."
An Oregon mother, Connie Koch, 40, and her 6-year-old son Noah were moved by the tragedy that affected the out-of-town family and brought gifts to the hospitalized children yesterday — a remote-control car for Beau and a paint set for Sidney, and coloring books and crayons for both.
Ms. Koch said she talked to a family member who drove to Toledo from Maryland who accepted the care packages from Noah and thanked them for their thoughtfulness.
"Here they are in a city where they don't live with limited family around," Ms. Koch said. "And for them to know they're not going home a whole family. As a mother, I couldn't imagine. And that father, I couldn't imagine being him right now."
Staff writers Laren Weber, Janet Romaker, David Patch, and Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.
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5 Fatalities on 280 in Toledo (OVI)------------------------------------
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