The driver who police said was behind the wheel of an addiction recovery van when it overturned on I-85 and burst into flames has been charged with seven counts of first-degree vehicular homicide — one for each of the women who died in the crash.
A reckless driving maneuver by 32-year-old Monica Elizabeth Manire contributed to the fiery crash that injured eight other passengers on April 24, according to Gwinnett County police.
“Investigators believe that Manire made a reckless change of lanes from I-85 to I-985 which caused the van she was driving to flip on its side,” Gwinnett police said in a statement.
Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department
Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department
The seven counts of vehicular homicide Manire faces are felony offenses punishable by up to 15 years in prison. She also faces counts of reckless driving, improper lane change and serious injury by vehicle. Manire was booked into the Gwinnett County Jail, where she remains without bond.
The charges against Manire were filed one day after Gwinnett County police released the names of the women who died when the We Are Living Proof community vehicle crashed in Suwanee. Those who died were Normisha Monroe, 38, of Roswell; Alishia Carroll, 34, of Columbus; Kristie Whitfield, 44, of Mount Airy; Ashleigh Paris, 26, of Kennesaw; Tina Rice, 53, of Atlanta; and Rose Patrick, 34, of Ellabell. A seventh victim, 48-year-old Heidi Lesley, died of her injuries two weeks later.
The survivors, who are from cities all across metro Atlanta and the state, were taken to two different hospitals with injuries after 911 calls began pouring in about 6:30 p.m. about a passenger van on its side engulfed in flames.
Footage from Georgia Department of Transportation cameras showed the van in the middle of the road with thick flames consuming its entire frame. Heavy smoke towered over the vehicle as crews worked to put out the fire.
Police are still investigating what happened in the moments leading to the crash. The van, which is owned by We Are Living Proof, was heading north on I-85 when “an unknown vehicle changed lanes unexpectedly in front of (the van),” according to an initial police report.
Manire lost control, police said, and the vehicle rolled onto its side. It slid across two lanes of the entrance ramp to I-985 and smashed into a guardrail before coming to a stop in the left lane, the report said.
Tamika Gooden, the younger sister of Normisha Monroe, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she’s grateful someone was charged, but said it doesn’t make the incident any less tragic.
”I’m glad somebody is accountable,” she said Thursday afternoon. ”I’m glad they’re investigating and getting to the bottom of it.”
Gooden said she didn’t know Manire and had never seen her during her visits to the center. “I’ve always seen another lady that drove, but never her,” Gooden said.
The Houston County Sheriff’s Office has also placed a hold on Manire in connection with drug possession charges. In September, the Byron, Georgia, woman was charged with possession of marijuana and a window tint violation, both misdemeanors, according to Houston County State Court records. When she failed to show up for arraignment hearings in December and February, a warrant was issued for her arrest, records show.
We Are Living Proof has not responded to multiple requests for comment since the crash.
The shell of the 15-passenger 2002 Dodge Ram van was taken into evidence by Gwinnett police. Organizations including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have previously expressed concerns about risks presented by similar vehicles.
“These cumbersome vehicles can pose a safety risk to inexperienced van drivers and other road users,” the NHTSA said.
The NHTSA said drivers should “never allow more than 15 people to ride in a 15-passenger van.” The organization also said 15-passenger vans should “only be driven by experienced, licensed drivers who operate this type of vehicle on a regular basis.”
“A commercial driver’s license is ideal,” the NHTSA said. “It’s important to know that 15-passenger vans handle differently than cars, especially when fully loaded.”
While Manire’s experience level in driving the van is not clear, the Gwinnett police report said she holds a Class C driver’s license. Manire’s license is non-commercial, according to Department of Driver Services records.
Gwinnett police are still seeking witnesses to the crash.
“Investigators believe that there were vehicles that swerved out of the way of the van,” police said. “They would still like those people to come forward.”
Witnesses are asked to call the police department’s Accident Investigation Unit tip line at 678-442-5653. Tipsters can remain anonymous, and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000, by contacting Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, texting information to 274637 or visiting the Crime Stoppers website.