Trucker gets 5 years for crash that killed 5 nursing students

A tractor-trailer driver pleaded guilty Thursday to causing the I-16 pileup that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students and injured two others. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

John Wayne Johnson, 56, pleaded guilty to nine counts — including five counts of first-degree vehicular homicide — and ultimately admitted fault for the April 22, 2015, crash. But the hardest part to accept, according to an attorney for some of the families, is that Johnson had caused another crash 16 months before, and no safety measures were in place to prevent it from happening again.

“The families do feel like they’ve gotten closure through the sentencing,” attorney Bob Cheeley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But there’s still a raw nerve when they consider the fact that it was not Mr. Johnson, but his employer that put him in the seat of that truck when they should not have.”

Almost a year and a half before the deadly I-16 crash, Johnson had fallen asleep at the wheel and rolled a tractor-trailer over, Cheeley said. He was fired after the crash but was subsequently hired by Total Transportation of Mississippi.

“He was a tainted driver when they hired him,” Cheeley said.

On the morning of April 22, 2015, Johnson was using his cellphone to text and exchange sexually provocative messages with a woman as he drove on I-16 toward Savannah, he said in a deposition. He has repeatedly denied he was using his phone at the time of the crash, though some families suspect he fell asleep.

Earlier that morning, seven young women left Statesboro in two cars and were headed to Savannah for their final clinical of the school year when the deadly pileup occurred.

Five students died in the crash: Emily Elizabeth Clark, 20, of Powder Springs; Morgan Jane Bass, 20, of Leesburg; Abbie Lorene Deloach, 21, of Savannah; Catherine “McKay” Pittman, 21, of Alpharetta; and Caitlyn Nichole Baggett, 21, of Millen.

Two others were seriously injured but survived: Megan Richards of Loganville and Brittney McDaniel of Reidsville.

Clark, a Harrison High School graduate, had likely already met her future husband, her boyfriend Neal Hollis said. Pittman, a Milton High graduate, wanted to go on mission trips to help disadvantaged people and sick children, her best friend said. All five had big dreams and were eager to begin their careers and lives, family and friends said in the days after the wrecks.

To date, Total Transportation has paid $78 million in settlements to the families of the five girls killed and one of the survivors. One survivor’s case against the company is still pending.

In June, a grand jury indicted both Johnson and Total Transportation of Mississippi on multiple charges. But District Attorney Tom Durden recently agreed to drop his case against the company in exchange for Total Transportation spending an additional $200,000 to establish an education fund for student nurses.

While in court Thursday, Johnson told a judge he couldn’t explain what caused him to drive into the back of cars, rather than stopping. His tractor-trailer was not outfitted with autonomous braking, which could have prevented the crash, nor a camera, which would have shown Johnson’s actions, Cheeley said.

The attorney representing other families involved in the crash agreed, saying the crash could have been prevented.

“Our hopes are that other truck drivers and trucking companies learn from this tragedy so that it never has to be repeated again,” attorney Joe Fried said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.