Michelle Carmelita Lerma appeared in the Grand Rapids District Court recently for her preliminary hearing. Seated in a wheelchair, both her arms in casts, the 40-year-old faced Judge David Buter while the prosecution explained why she was being charged with OWI causing death.
Lerma is accused of driving drunk and causing an accident which took the life of 58-year-old Grass Lake resident, Gregory Gene Johnson, known as “Tex” to his friends and family.
Assistant Kent County Prosecutor James Benison produced lab test reports provided by the Michigan State Police, showing that Lerma’s BAC was 0.196, indicating that she was well beyond even the state’s “super drunk” limit. In addition, MSP officers who spoke to Lerma just after the crash say that she admitted to drinking up to 6 rum and cokes before attempting to drive herself home.
According to testimony provided by a Grand Rapids Police Department crash reconstructionist, Lerma was driving the wrong way at 75 mph on I-96 at 3:30 in the morning when her SUV struck Johnson’s 2004 Hyundai head-on. Both cars caught fire due to the damage caused by the crash.
Using data recovered from the vehicles, it was determined that there was no indication that Lerma had even attempted to use her brakes before the collision. However, it was difficult to recover much data from Johnson’s car due to the extent of the burn damage.
Testimony was also provided by a witness named Joseph Piccione, who told the court that he had tried to pull the man from the burning wreckage of the Hyundai, but the heat of the fire was too intense. So instead, he broke the window of the burning SUV with a tree branch, and pulled the female driver from the wreckage. He then sat with her and held her hand until emergency personnel arrived.
And finally, another witness, Melanie Cochran, explained that she had been driving on I-96 that morning and had been forced to pull off the road onto the shoulder in order to avoid being hit by Lerma’s SUV, travelling eastward in the westbound lane. She says that the vehicle flew by her car, only a few feet away.
According to Judge Buter, the only remaining formality before the case is bound over for trial in the Kent County Circuit Court, is that defense attorney David Bogard wants to see the Medical Examiner’s report for himself before he is willing to stipulate to the cause of death.
Lerma is facing charges of operating while intoxicated causing death, and reckless driving causing death. Both counts are felonies and, if convicted, she could be sentenced to a maximum of fifteen years in prison.