Po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the spot­light

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY ZACK PETER­SON STAFF WRITER

Dur­ing the open­ing day of trial Tues­day, prose­cu­tors said ev­i­dence would show John­thony Walker was speed­ing and on the phone when he crashed his school bus, killing six el­e­men­tary stu­dents.

Shortly af­ter that, the 25-year-old’s de­fense at­tor­ney got a state wit­ness to say one of those things wasn’t true.

“You cer­tainly weren’t on the phone with Mr. Walker at the time of the ac­ci­dent, were you?” de­fense at­tor­ney Amanda Dunn asked Takiesha Nixon.

“I was not,” Nixon said. For more than a year, prose­cu­tors have said Walker was speed­ing on Tal­ley Road on Nov. 21, 2016, when he lost con­trol of the ve­hi­cle, tried to over­cor­rect, and then over­turned, his bus wrap­ping around a wal­nut tree with 37 Wood­more El­e­men­tary School chil­dren on­board. As a re­sult, six chil­dren died and sev­eral more were in­jured.

But in De­cem­ber 2017, Hamil­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Gen­eral Neal Pinkston said cel­lu­lar data showed Walker re­ceived a nearly four-minute phone call at 3:17 p.m. That new in­for­ma­tion put Walker on the phone at the time of the 3:20 p.m. crash.

But Nixon, who worked with Walker at his sec­ond job at Ama­zon, said their phone call wasn’t that long.

Nixon said she called Walker on Nov. 21, 2016, and asked if he was driv­ing. When Walker said yes, Nixon said she told him to be care­ful and hung up. Nixon said she didn’t like talk­ing to peo­ple while they were driv­ing be­cause of a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. She didn’t hear kids or a crash. Their call lasted sec­onds, not min­utes.

“Maybe his line didn’t hang up,” she said.

To sup­port that point, Dunn pulled two text mes­sages Nixon sent to Walker on Nov. 21, 2016, and then the next day, when Walker

was in cus­tody for the crash and sep­a­rated from his phone. “Text me when you wanna talk, when­ever you’re done,” Nixon wrote around 3:40 p.m. on the crash day. If she’d known about the crash, Nixon prob­a­bly would have sent a dif­fer­ent mes­sage, Dunn ar­gued.

The Chattanooga Po­lice Depart­ment had those mes­sages within a week of the crash, Dunn said. But they never spoke to Nixon un­til re­cently, the de­fense at­tor­ney said.

The same was true with an­other state wit­ness who ob­served a sec­ond ve­hi­cle on the scene, Dunn said.

Chattanooga of­fi­cers took a state­ment from Michelle Brog­don, who said she saw a white ve­hi­cle steer­ing into Walker’s lane as they both trav­eled along a curve on Tal­ley Road that day. Brog­don said Walker could have been speed­ing, since the word­ing on his bus blurred. Nor­mally, Brog­don said, she could read the writ­ing. Af­ter the crash, Brog­don said she went to the scene and saw a male driver get out of the white ve­hi­cle and make a phone call. It’s un­clear if he called 911, but the state played no such record­ing Tues­day.

The po­lice depart­ment, how­ever, never reached out to Brog­don un­til Novem­ber 2017, a year af­ter the crash, Dunn said. That was three months af­ter Dunn wrote in a pub­lic court doc­u­ment that a sec­ond ve­hi­cle may have con­trib­uted to the crash. Adam Cavitt, an in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer, didn’t dis­pute that time­line. He said there was no phys­i­cal ev­i­dence on the scene to sup­port the sec­ond-ve­hi­cle the­ory. Cavitt also in­ter­viewed three driv­ers from a driv­ing com­pany he sus­pected and none of them were on Tal­ley Road that day, he said. Dunn coun­tered that none of those men matched the phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion Brog­don gave. Dunn said of­fi­cers had Brog­don’s in­for­ma­tion — they just never called once they had their ar­rest with Walker.

Dur­ing a pre­vi­ous hear­ing in 2016, Chattanooga of­fi­cer Joe War­ren said he an­a­lyzed tire marks on the scene and was able to de­ter­mine Walker was trav­el­ing about 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. War­ren never men­tioned the sec­ond ve­hi­cle dur­ing that hear­ing and said Tues­day he didn’t see how it was rel­e­vant.

When Dunn ques­tioned him fur­ther, War­ren said the sec­ond ve­hi­cle helped him un­der­stand the whole sit­u­a­tion. Still, “I have a bus that’s speed­ing and out of con­trol,” he said.

Dunn, who dis­putes that speed, spent most of the af­ter­noon Tues­day de­bat­ing the method­ol­ogy War­ren used to de­ter­mine that num­ber. Cit­ing ac­cred­ited stud­ies on traf­fic re­con­struc­tion, Dunn said War­ren didn’t use a pre­ferred way of test­ing. The of­fi­cer said he’d used his way and the pre­ferred way, com­pared the re­sults and found no dis­crep­an­cies.

War­ren was the last per­son to tes­tify be­fore Hamil­ton County Crim­i­nal Court Judge Don Poole dis­missed jurors for the night. The trial con­tin­ues to­day be­fore Poole at 9 a.m.

Walker faces six counts of ve­hic­u­lar homi­cide, seven counts of as­sault, 17 counts of reck­less ag­gra­vated as­sault and one count each of reck­less driv­ing, reck­less en­dan­ger­ment and use of a por­ta­ble de­vice by a school bus driver.

STAFF PHOTO BY ERIN O. SMITH

Michelle Brog­don tes­ti­fies dur­ing John­thony Walker’s crim­i­nal trial Tues­day in Judge Don Poole’s court­room at the Hamil­ton Coun­tyChat­tanooga Courts Build­ing. Brog­don lives near where the Nov. 21, 2016, bus crash oc­curred and said she wit­nessed the crash.

John­thony Walker

STAFF PHOTO BY ERIN O. SMITH

A full court­room lis­tens to tes­ti­monies dur­ing John­thony Walker’s crim­i­nal trial Tues­day, in Judge Don Poole’s court­room at the Hamil­ton County-Chattanooga Courts Build­ing.

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