Trucker accused in trooper's death was 'bound to have a very big accident,' manager says

News-DemocratJuly 20, 2013 

Three years before truck driver Johnny Felton was accused of hitting and killing Illinois State Trooper Kyle Deatherage, a company manager wrote in a memo that Felton was "bound to have a very big accident sooner or later."

Manager George Garbutt referenced in his Oct. 19, 2009, memo to Felton that the over-the-road truck driver had three at-fault accidents in three years, including smashing into the back of a car when he fell asleep, falsification of his log book, driving more than the allowed mileage and missing safety meetings. Garbutt wrote that "other more reputable carriers would have terminated a driver with a record like yours," according to documents obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat.

But instead of firing Felton, Mount Sterling-base DOT Transportation, now known as DTI, sent him for more training and kept him on the road. It was on a road, Interstate 55 near Litchfield in Montgomery County, that on Nov. 26 Felton allegedly struck and killed Deatherage, who was on the side of the highway conducting a traffic stop.

Felton, of Hinesville, Ga., was involved in 10 accidents before he struck Deatherage, but Jim Tracy, counsel for the company, asserted in an email statement to the BND that commercial drivers like Felton drive hundreds of thousands of miles and their accident records can be taken out of context.

"DTI constantly works to be one of the safest trucking companies in the U.S. through good hiring and training and providing our drivers with safe and well-maintained trucks and trailers," Tracy said.

Felton could not be reached for comment.

Thomas Q. Keefe contended that even though the company believed that Felton was a danger, they kept him driving without regard for public safety. Keefe is the Swansea attorney who represents Deatherage's widow, Sarah, and children in a wrongful death lawsuit against DTI and Felton pending in Madison County.

"This corporation makes four billion in sales a year. Those profits rely on drivers," Keefe said. "They had knowledge that this man was a real and actual danger more than three years before he killed this young trooper, husband and father and they let him drive."

Tracy stated that not all of the accidents were Felton's fault and most of those accidents were minor. Felton hit a branch, a sign and caught the trailer on a catwalk, totaling less than $500 in property damage for each accident.

But there were a couple of more serious accidents, including one on Feb. 15, 2009, when Felton rear-ended another vehicle on Interstate 75 near Cartersville, Ga., causing $11,528 in damage.

Garbutt referenced that accident in his Oct. 19, 2009, memo.

" ... you have caused several thousands of dollars of damage to our equipment with the accident you had on I-75 where you fell asleep and rear ended another vehicle," Garbutt wrote.

In an Feb. 25, 2009, email from Garbutt, he wrote that accident was "potentially disastrous." Felton told Garbutt that he falsified his log book and ran extra hours, and missed safety meetings, according to Garbutt's email. He asked for approval to fire Felton.

"Whether or not to fire an employee in a given situation or administer lesser discipline is usually a judgment call based on what is known by the employer at the time," Tracy wrote. "The Garbutt email was written in February 2009, over four years ago. In 2009, after that email, Mr. Felton was disciplined and required to take additional driver safety training that he completed. After that training Mr. Felton drove for DTI for over three years without a recordable at-fault accident."

But drivers aren't easy to find, Keefe maintained, so DTI chose to keep Felton driving, even after a June 24, 2012, accident where Felton rear-ended another car in Calhoun, Ga. That accident caused $7,265 in damage.

Deatherage was killed five months later. The St. Jacob man was 32.

"The corporation has so much money because they have drivers. The more drivers, the more money," Keefe said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation pulled Felton's right to drive, stating that Felton failed to monitor his medical condition. In that order, it stated that Felton did not tell the doctor conducting the required medical examination for commercial drivers that he suffered from a medical condition. Felton later told investigators he blacked out at the wheel before he struck Deatherage.

The Illinois State Police found prescription medication bearing Felton's name, the order stated. The type of medication was redacted from the order. "... Felton's failure to comply with the medical regulations and conditions of operation substantially increases the likelihood of serious injury or death to Felton and to the motoring public."

Felton wasn't licensed to drive commercial loads outside of Georgia at the time of the accident with Deatherage. He held an intrastate commercial license, usually for school bus drivers, fire or rescue truck drivers, beekeepers, ambulance drivers or those who transport human corpses.

Felton, 52, had a valid interstate license for five years, but renewed his commercial driver's license in Georgia in July 2012.

" ... We believe that when he renewed, he got confused as the difference between interstate and intrastate and for this reason, erroneously checked the intrastate box, instead of the interstate," Tracy wrote.

Tracy noted that the requirements for intrastate and interstate commercial drivers' licenses are the same and Felton would have no reason to change to an intrastate license.

"To the contrary, there would have been very good reason not to change that status," Tracy wrote. "Had DTI known about this change, Mr. Felton would have (been) immediately removed from his DTI job as an interstate driver."

Keefe and lawyers for DTI continue to battle over whether the case should be heard in Madison County. Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth found last month the case should stay in Madison County, but DTI lawyers may appeal the ruling.

Keefe said he has no idea when the case may go to trial.

Felton faces felony charges of reckless homicide and driving without a valid commercial driver's license. Victor Hart, a safety manager of DTI, posted Felton's $25,000 bail, according to Montgomery County Court records.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

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