Tuesday, August 14th, 2012
Driver charged in fatal accident
Tests detect alcohol, marijuana
By Margie Wuebker
A 27-year-old Coldwater man, who reportedly tested positive for alcohol and marijuana, faces multiple charges stemming from a July 14 traffic accident that claimed two lives.
Ryan Billenstein, 560 S. Second St., is charged with four counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, one count each of aggravated vehicular assault and vehicular assault and three counts of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, drugs of abuse or a combination of the two. The charges range from second-degree felonies to first-degree misdemeanors.
He is incarcerated at the Mercer County Detention Center pending a 1:30 p.m. appearance today in Celina Municipal Court. The case is expected to be transferred to Mercer County Common Pleas Court for presentation to a grand jury. The next session is Thursday.
Toxicology tests administered after the 2:58 a.m. crash detected the presence of alcohol and marijuana in Billenstein's system. His blood-alcohol content was 0.11. A driver in Ohio with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or greater is considered to be legally impaired.
Killed in the crash were 22-year-old Craig A. Gengler of Celina and 21-year-old Vincent Anthony Gragorace of Greenville. The accident occurred 30 minutes after Billenstein's 2006 GTO was stopped in Coldwater by Patrolman Dave Powell, a four-year member of the Coldwater force, who performed a horizontal gaze test designed to track the driver's response to light, according to Coldwater Police Chief Randy Waltmire. A driver under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs typically has difficulty following the light, he said.
"We talked to the officer in the wake of the accident, and he did not feel there was probable cause to proceed with field sobriety tests," Waltmire said this morning. "We rely on the officer's judgement at the time because it's easy to play Monday morning quarterback afterward."
According to the Coldwater police log, Powell had Billenstein stopped for four minutes. He was pulled over for a lane violation.
Waltmire told The Daily Standard July 16 that a log entry made after the stop showed no sobriety tests had been administered by Powell. Waltmire said today that he learned otherwise after speaking with the officer.
Waltmire said today the videocamera in Powell's cruiser wasn't working at the time of the stop. He added that Coldwater village council recently approved the purchase of new camera equipment for cruisers.
Waltmire said an internal investigation into Powell's actions during the stop was held with no disciplinary action issued.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey and Waltmire said officers - even those with years of experience on the road - occasionally miss an impaired driver.
"There is not a police officer, a deputy sheriff or a state trooper that hasn't missed one or two during the course of their careers," Grey said. "It happened to me during my days with the Celina Police Department. Some impaired drivers are easy to spot or the odor gives them away, and others show no sign of impairment."
Minutes after the July 14 traffic stop in Coldwater, Mercer County Central Dispatch received a call regarding an erratic driver traveling at a high rate of speed along U.S. 127, south of state Route 219. The caller did not have a license plate number but gave a description of the car. Powell reportedly called Central Dispatch to report the description was similar to the car he had stopped earlier.
The accident occurred before authorities could locate the car. Billenstein was driving westbound on state Route 119 when the car traveled off the roadway near the Lange/Fleetfoot Road intersection. The car spun out of control and the rear portion struck two trees in a nearby yard, according to Mercer County Sheriff's Office reports.
Billenstein and front-seat passenger, 21-year-old Bethany Marie Wentworth of Greenville, escaped from the burning car and pulled Gengler from the backseat. They could not rescue Gragorace, the other backseat passenger.
Billenstein and Wentworth were taken by ambulance to Mercer County Community Hospital in Coldwater. He reportedly sustained burns to the arms and hands and she received treatment for multiple fractures.