DUI suspect pleads guilty to 2017 double-fatal, wrong-way crash in Belleville

A New Athens man accused of causing a double-fatal, wrong-way crash in 2017 pleaded guilty Wednesday and is to be sentenced in late March or April.

Kevin G. Helfrich, 55, is accused of driving drunk and in the wrong direction on Illinois 15 when his truck crashed head-on into a car July 8, 2017, killing the car’s two occupants. Helfrich survived the crash and was hospitalized for a lengthy period afterward.

He was charged with aggravated DUI resulting in death and two felony counts of reckless homicide in connection with the July deaths of the car’s two occupants: 37-year-old John Bannister and 36-year-old Daryl Harton.

The men were out that night celebrating their anniversary. In Bannister’s obituary, the two were described as “soul mates.”

On Wednesday, Helfrich came to enter his plea using a walking cane. He passed about 20 people who had gathered outside of the courtroom. Many of them were members of Bannister’s and Harton’s families, one even wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the men’s smiling faces on it.

Judge Zina Cruise accepted Helfrich’s guilty plea to one count of aggravated DUI resulting in death, a Class 2 felony, and two counts of reckless homicide, Class 3 felonies. Because the reckless homicide charges are lesser counts, state prosecutors asked to merge them with the aggravated DUI charge, which has a special sentencing range of six to 28 years in prison, followed by two years of supervised release.

“Anytime there’s a lesser included offense among the charges, (the person) will be sentenced on the most serious offense,” Assistant State’s Attorney John Trippi said.

Helfrich did not enter any sort of deal associated with the guilty plea. According to Trippi, Helfrich was offered no incentives.

“He’s basically throwing himself at the mercy of the court,” Trippi said.

As details of the accident were recounted in court Wednesday, several members of the victims’ families became emotional, with some crying.

In a search warrant released in October 2017, investigators stated they found cold cans of Stag beer and prescription pill bottles in Helfrich’s truck after the crash.

The 2017 DUI charge was the fifth time Helfrich has been charged with drunken driving in St. Clair County.

Kevin Helfrich is wheeled out of the courthouse by a St. Clair County deputy Nov. 9 after appearing for an arraignment. Steve Nagy

He has one other pending DUI case, filed in October 2016. Helfrich had a valid license at the time of the July crash because of errors on a police report.

In past years, Helfrich had been pulled over two other times for allegedly driving the wrong way on a road.

Helfrich pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in 2009, and he pleaded guilty to charges of improper lane usage twice after being charged in DUI cases in 2000 and 2015, according to St. Clair County court records. In all four DUI cases, Helfrich refused to take a breath test — an evidence obstacle for attorneys when it comes to prosecuting, State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly told the BND in July.

He is scheduled for a hearing in the 2016 DUI case on Jan. 29.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.