Editor’s note: This story was originally published Oct. 10, 2014
The semi-truck driver who struck and killed Illinois State Police Trooper Kyle Deatherage on Interstate 55 near Raymond in November 2012 will avoid jail time after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Johnny B. Felton Jr., 54, of Hinesville, Ga., was sentenced to 2 1/2 years of probation after pleading guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Hillsboro to two felony charges — reckless homicide and operating a commercial vehicle without a valid commercial driver’s license. Felton was also fined $2,500, plus court costs, and lost his commercial driver’s license.
Felton was represented by James Elmore, of Springfield, who could not be reached for comment.
A written statement from Montgomery County State’s Attorney Chris Matoush’s office said that Matoush agreed to the plea after consultation with Deatherage’s family and the Illinois State Police.
“The family, the Illinois State Police and State’s Attorney Matoush hope that this conviction will help send a message to all drivers on the roadway to slow down and move over when you see those flashing lights. This incident occurred in a matter of seconds with no indication of reckless driving prior to Felton seeing those flashing lights 500 feet ahead of him,” the statement read.
Swansea attorney Thomas Q. Keefe Jr. represents Deatherage’s widow, Sarah, and their two children in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Felton and his employer DTI, which is pending in Madison County.
Deatherage, who was 32 years old, is survived by his wife, Sarah, of Highland; daughter, Kaylee; and a son, Camden.
“This loss will go on with this family forever,” Keefe said on behalf of the family. “The plea of guilty to a felony by Johnny Felton was certainly all the family could have gotten had they gone to trial.”
Keefe said the large cadre of family members and Illinois State Police troopers at the plea hearing Sept. 29 appreciated Felton’s public apology. “The family was very grateful for that,” he said.
However, Keefe said the family has yet to receive any type of apology from Felton’s employer, Mount Sterling-based DOT Transportation, which is now known as DTI.
“What the family remains angry and hurt about is the complete lack of acknowledgment or sorrow or any type of expression of remorse from the company,” Keefe said. “They remain amazed at the arrogance of this employer.”
He accused DOT Transportation/DTI of “putting profits over people.”
The company’s president, Paul Mugerditchian, said in a provided statement that despite Felton’s plea, it was a “tragic accident, not a criminal act. Although we were disappointed that due to outside pressure, this highway accident was criminalized, and we believe Mr. Felton would have prevailed had he gone to trial, we respect his decision.”
He added, “Mr. Felton has been personally devastated by this awful accident. We join him in expressing our deepest sympathies to the Deatherage family.”
In a written statement, Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau described Kyle Deatherage as “an exceptional police officer whose legacy of personal sacrifice has taught many ISP officers about the importance of living a life of service.
“No probation or fine will bring Kyle back to his family and colleagues, and we can only hope that this senseless tragedy has raised safety awareness for the commercial motor vehicle community and every motorist driving on Illinois roads and beyond,” Grau said.
Felton, who had no prior criminal history, could have received up to 14 years in prison if he had been found guilty of reckless homicide and up to three years on the driver’s license charge.
Deatherage was a native of St. Jacob and a 1998 Triad High School graduate. The accident that took his life occurred on the morning of Nov. 26, 2012, while he was conducting a traffic stop near the 62-mile marker on I-55.
Prosecutors said Felton, whose commercial license did not allow him to operate a truck outside of Georgia, was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, but he admitted to “mentally dozing off” when the accident occurred.
Felton had a valid interstate CDL until shortly before the accident when he renewed his CDL and mistakenly checked the “intrastate” box instead of the “interstate” box, according to information provided by DTI.
Court records state Felton was driving 68 miles per hour with the cruise control on when he saw the flashing lights on Deatherage’s motorcycle. Felton said he attempted to steer his truck into the other lane but could not due to traffic.
Felton was involved in 10 crashes before he struck Deatherage. In a memo in 2009, a company manager wrote that Felton was “bound to have a very big accident sooner or later.”
“DOT continued to allow this man to run (truck routes) when their own people knew he was an accident waiting to happen,” Keefe said.
Most of Felton’s prior accidents involved minor property damage only, according to DTI.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report said Felton had failed to disclose a medical condition he suffers from to a Department of Transportation medical examiner, including his medications prescribed in treating the condition. The specific medical condition was redacted from the report.
Illinois State Police found prescription medicine bearing Felton’s name in the vehicle, according to the federal report.
Felton was medically qualified to drive a commercial vehicle and had a valid U.S. Department of Transportation medical card, according to DTI.
Felton, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army, is still employed at DOT Transportation as a garage technician at the company’s Georgia facility.
The civil lawsuit filed in January 2013 seeks more than $225,000. The next status hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Dec. 17.
Keefe said he can’t discuss ongoing litigation, but did say the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court has ruled the suit should be moved from Madison County to Montgomery County, where the crash occurred.
Currently, Keefe and the Deatherage family are considering whether to appeal that decision.