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Former firefighter gets jail time for fatal crash

Former Firefighter Timothy Johnson was on his way to his fire station when he rear-ended a car, killing a man

By Jennifer Feehan
The Blade of Toledo

PORT CLINTON, Ohio — Saying Timothy Johnson still viewed himself as a victim, visiting Judge Paul Moon on Monday sentenced the former volunteer firefighter to nine months in jail -- the maximum term -- for his role in a fatal car crash.

“There’s been much said about your concern for public service and safety, but you turned those two concepts on their ear the night of July 16, 2010,” Judge Moon said in Ottawa County Common Pleas Court.

Mr. Johnson, 43, of rural Oak Harbor, was driving at a high rate of speed on State Rt. 19 on his way to the fire station in Oak Harbor when he crashed into the rear of a car driven by Olivia Duty, now 22, of Woodville, at the intersection of Portage River South Road. Ms. Duty was seriously injured; her passenger and boyfriend, Ian Huffman, 24, of Elmore, was killed.

Mr. Johnson, a volunteer firefighter with the Portage Fire District, was responding to a call for a ladder truck requested by neighboring Clay Center when the crash occurred. His attorney, Dean Henry, told the court no one knows for sure how fast Mr. Johnson was going, but that his client’s “motive for going fast -- some would say too fast -- was pure,” that he was on his way to help others.

Judge Moon dismissed that notion.

“The defendant was going 96 to 98 mph heading into an incorporated village. No public safety vehicle is ever reasonably permitted to drive at that speed,” the judge said. “What’s in the balance here? You’ve got the Graytown bowling alley [burning] and we’re trying to balance that with the lives of these two young people. Where’s the balance? It just simply doesn’t exist.”

A tearful Mr. Johnson told the court he was not the cowboy he had been made out to be.

“July 16, 2010 was a horrible night. I relive it everyday,” he said. “It goes through my mind. My heart aches that Ian lost his life, and I know that I did everything I could to steer way.”

He said he was sorry Mr. Huffman died, but stopped short of apologizing for causing the crash.

The victim’s father, John Huffman, said he was prepared to ask the judge to give Mr. Johnson probation, but it bothered him that Mr. Johnson did not apologize to Ms. Duty and her parents, who were in the courtroom, and that he did not accept responsibility for his actions.

“Ninety-eight mph going through the most dangerous intersection in Ottawa County,” Mr. Huffman said. “There was a firefighter who testified that he wouldn’t do 30 mph through that intersection. This guy wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt.”

Mr. Johnson’s speed was a key issue when he went to trial last year on felony charges of aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault -- a trial that ended in a mistrial after a special prosecutor, Ken Egbert, Jr., introduced testimony that hadn’t been disclosed to the defense beforehand.

In July, when Mr. Johnson’s case was scheduled to go to trial a second time, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of negligent vehicular homicide and attempted negligent vehicular homicide. Mr. Henry said Mr. Johnson, a father of four with no prior criminal record, had agreed to give up being a volunteer firefighter, although he planned to remain on the fire brigade at Davis-Besse nuclear power station where he works.

Mr. Johnson, who had been free on bond since his indictment nearly two years ago, was handcuffed and taken to jail after his sentence was imposed. Mr. Henry asked that his sentence be postponed pending an appeal, but the judge refused.

Judge Moon also said he would leave it to the Ottawa County sheriff to recommend to him whether Mr. Johnson could be placed in a work release program that would allow him to continue working while serving his jail term. The judge also suspended his driver’s license for three years.

“If you are placed on work release by the sheriff and if you wish to apply for limited driving privileges for occupational purposes only, I want that application to tell me why other of your friends and family cannot reasonably drive you to and from work," Judge Moon told Mr. Johnson. "That is a necessary component of your application for driving privileges.”

Ms. Duty declined to comment after the sentencing. John Huffman said that if Mr. Johnson had apologized and accepted responsibility, the judge probably would have placed him on probation rather than sent him to jail.

He added that he and his family consented to the plea agreement because of the mistrial and because of a need to “start on that road to closure and avoid the hell of another trial.”

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Huffmans and Ms. Duty against Mr. Johnson and the Portage Fire District is pending in Ottawa County Common Pleas Court. A trial in that case is set for Jan. 21.

Republished with permission from The Blade of Toldeo, OH on Sept. 25, 2012

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