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Lawmaker to pay $300 in Accident Fatal to Three

By Richard Massey

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

PINE BLUFF Three misdemeanor counts of negligent homicide against a state lawmaker were dismissed Tuesday after he pleaded no contest to a traffic violation in a February 2003 accident that claimed three lives along Interstate 530 in Jefferson County.

State Rep. Johnnie Bolin, D- Crossett, was scheduled for trial Thursday in Jefferson County Circuit Court and faced up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine on each of the Class A misdemeanor counts. Instead, Bolin, 61, must pay $300 in penalties and court costs for careless and prohibited driving.

The accident occurred on Feb. 25, 2003, when Jefferson County's roads were covered with ice.

While heading south on I-530, Bolin's vehicle slid off the road just south of Redfield, about 20 miles north of Pine Bluff. April Weeks, 23, of Star City, had earlier lost control of her northbound vehicle, which also had slid off the road. Shawn Storz, 25, and Angela Storz, 22, newlyweds from Jefferson, pulled over to help Weeks.

When Bolin's vehicle slid off the road, it pinned all three of them against Weeks' car, killing them.

Bolin could not be reached for comment, nor could relatives of Weeks and the Storzes.

The state's case against Bolin hinged on evidence collected by the Arkansas State Police, which reconstructed the accident scene and produced a speed analysis.

The agency estimated that Bolin was traveling up to 68 mph. Prosecutors planned to argue that the speed caused Bolin to lose control of his vehicle in the 70 mph zone.

But the evidence collected by the state troopers was suppressed by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Jodi Dennis. The judge agreed with Bolin's defense attorney, Wayne Juneau of Pine Bluff, who argued that the reconstruction was "unreliable" due to the icy conditions.

"Basically, what he did was plead to what we could prove," Prosecuting Attorney Stevan Dalrymple said.

Bolin, chairman of the House Committee on Public Transportation, is in his second term and is running unopposed in the Nov. 2 election. The Democrat's first term began in January 2001.

Bolin faces no repercussions in the House because the traffic violation does not constitute an "infamous crime," according to Article 5, Section 9, of the Arkansas Constitution.

Juneau is pleased that his client chose the plea instead of trial.

"It's favorable," Juneau said. "I thought it was in his best interest to plead no contest to the traffic offense."

Dalrymple said that $300 in fines and court costs does little to heal the pain experienced by the Storz and Weeks families.

"The tragedy that they've gone through... the system doesn't bring any real relief," he said.

James Ryals, a longtime friend of Shawn Storz who witnessed the accident, said Bolin "shouldn't have got off that easy."

Ryals was about five feet away when Bolin's vehicle careened into Weeks and the Storz couple.

"It was terrifying what we'd seen," said Ryals, who was listed as a witness for the trial. "Shawn was a really good fellow. He had just gotten his degree and was about to make some good money. They [Shawn and Angela] had just bought a house.