Woodmore Bus Driver Released from Custody

   The school bus driver responsible for last year's deadly crash has been released from custody after making bail. He has not yet been sentenced. Photo by Doug Strickland of the  Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The school bus driver responsible for last year's deadly crash has been released from custody after making bail. He has not yet been sentenced. Photo by Doug Strickland of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On Wed., October 4, twenty-five-year-old Johnthony Walker—the bus driver in the Nov. 21, 2016, Woodmore Elementary School bus wreck killing six children—was released from Hamilton County Jail. His release follows a day after a date for his criminal trial was set, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. A renewed bail has been pending since September.

The original bail posted for Walker was $107,500. He was charged in 2016 with five counts of vehicular homicide, one count of reckless driving, and one count of reckless endangerment. In the end, thirty-four total offenses were found against him.

According to a report on Sep. 18, 2017, Judge Don Poole reviewed the case and reduced bail by over half, making it $50,000. His defense attorney, Amanda Dunn, argued he had a right to a bond he could afford in August. Walker had been in solitude imprisonment from the time of the November crash until his release in October from Hamilton County Jail.

These September rulings included certain limitations prescribed by the judge. Walker is required to wear a G.P.S. at all times and is prohibited from operating motor vehicles until further notice.

Amanda Dunn and Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston argued in September over the main issues of whether Walker deserved a payable bail and and whether or not he qualified for alternative sentences. Judge Poole denied alternative sentences, but accepted the call for a payable bail.

Judge Poole’s ruling came after reliable witnesses advocated on behalf of Walker’s character. Walker had worked two jobs previously and had no criminal record until the Woodmore incident. Furthermore, Dunn argued in September another driver might have been present on the road, which caused Walker to swerve.

December 19, 2017 is the date for his next court appearance, in which outstanding motions will be addressed—none have been filed thus far—and a status update will be given concerning Walker and his stipulations. A trial date has been set for Tuesday, February 27, 2018, according to the WDEF News 12 website.

Currently, Walker faces six counts of vehicular homicide, seven counts of assault, eighteen counts of reckless aggravated assault, and one count each of reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and “use of a portable device by a school bus driver.”

The bus incident occurred on November 21, 2016, on Talley Road in Brainerd. Walker was speeding down the road (fifty m.p.h. in a thirty m.p.h. speed limit zone), lost control, and swerved into a mailbox. According to the initial reports from the Times Free Press, he overcorrected and rolled into a tree and a telephone pole, effectively collapsing the roof.

Six of the 37 children on board were killed, and 31 of the 37 were hospitalized.

The effects of the crash reverberated throughout the city of Chattanooga as the community showed support for the school and the families of the victims.

In the wake of the accident, reports surfaced that various students, faculty, and parents had complained about Walker, saying he was driving too fast and was purposefully swerving. Among these voices was Woodmore principal Brenda Adamson Cothran. She had even contacted the district transportation supervisor, noting Walker pulled out of the school too fast on multiple occasions, according to reports from the WUTC website.

The National Transport Safety Board investigated the incident, and the first report was published in December.

Durham School Services, the company who employed Walker, further investigated the incident. The C.E.O. of Durham, David A. Duke, posted a YouTube video answering questions about the accident.

In response to questions of why the Durham company did not respond immediately to the accident, Duke said, “Since the accident involved our bus and our driver, we needed time to conduct our own investigation, which is ongoing... And we wanted to be sure we didn’t do anything to intensify the anguish of the affected families or the broader Chattanooga community.”

Since then, Durham has instituted a new system in Chattanooga. All Chattanooga buses are being installed with cameras. These cameras capture both the driver and the oncoming road when they detect irregular behavior. Durham is planning to install these cameras in all their buses nationally in the next two years.

The tragic story has been etched into the minds of the larger Chattanooga community, even reaching the ears of the Covenant College community.

In late September, Covenant student Grace DeGraaf (‘18) reported on the various ways the community has rallied together in response to these tragic circumstances. Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, has donated a restored storage room (an $8,000 project) at Woodmore Elementary into a space for S.T.E.A.M.  

As Walker’s trial continues, and his future remains unclear, the city and its residents will continue to rally and rebuild in the painful wakes of the accident. The December court appearance and February criminal trial will be sure to answer many more questions about the accident as well as Walker’s future.