Sheriff’s officials: Teen charged in fatal crash had prior DUI arrest

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.com and ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comJune 18, 2012 

The Columbus teen jailed on vehicular homicide charges after a weekend crash had previously been charged with DUI in a separate arrest two weeks ago in Harris County, a pair of incidents authorities said underlined the perils of underage drinking.

Clayton A. Qualls faces a raft of charges — including driving under the influence, minor in possession of alcohol and having an open container — in connection with a Friday night wreck that killed Hannah E. Gilmer, a 16-year-old Northside High student. Gilmer wasn’t wearing a seat belt, police said, and was ejected from the car Qualls was driving about 11:15 p.m. on County Line Road.

Qualls, 17, made a brief court appearance on Monday but waived a preliminary hearing that could have shed new light on the crash. Several questions remained unanswered as investigators conducted follow-up interviews. It wasn’t yet clear, for instance, where Qualls allegedly obtained the alcohol or whether anyone else might be charged.

“We’re going to do everything we can to give this family closure,” said Columbus Police Sgt. Chris Anderson. “That’s our main goal and our main focus.”

A police report obtained Monday by the Ledger-Enquirer stated the crash happened near Randall Wood Drive. The 2006 Toyota Scion went out of control and “into a state of yaw” for an unknown reason, the report says, before crashing through a fence and flipping. The vehicle also “bounced” off a pine tree before coming to a rest, the report shows.

Qualls was being held Monday in the Muscogee County Jail in lieu of $22,880 bond. His attorney, John Martin, said there was no “specific reason” to have a preliminary hearing because Qualls already had a bond. Friends and family of Qualls would not comment after his court appearance.

The underage drinking charges are not the first Qualls has faced. On June 4, he was arrested on charges of DUI under 21 and minor in possession of alcohol after a Harris County sheriff’s deputy spotted a teen passenger tossing a Bud Light can from Qualls’ pickup at Winfree Road and Highway 208.

Qualls had been traveling with three other teens, including two unidentified girls riding in the backseat. During a traffic stop, the deputy found a green cooler in the backseat containing several unopened beer cans, according to his report.

Qualls initially denied drinking, the report says, but he blew a positive alcohol test of .078 on the deputy’s hand-held Alco-Sensor. The legal limit in Georgia is .08 for adults and .02 for drivers under 21.

Qualls refused the state administered test for alcohol at the jail, prompting authorities to take his driver’s license, Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley said. Qualls requested an administrative license suspension hearing, Jolley said, and had been driving with the ticket instead of a license.

“For 30 days, you can drive until that’s heard,” Jolley said.

A passenger who admitted tossing the beer can, Mathew Tyler Milner, 17, was cited for minor in possession of alcohol and required to pour out the remaining beer cans, the report says.

The girls riding in the backseat were not identified in the report. The mother of one of them requested they be field tested for alcohol upon picking them up. The report shows they tested negative.

A review of local crash reports shows Qualls also had been involved in a late-night fender bender late last year. It happened about 1:35 a.m. on Dec. 11 near the Muscogee-Harris County border.

The report offered few details but says Qualls was not drinking and backed into a vehicle parked on Almond Road. There were no injuries, and it’s not clear from the report whether he was cited.

Police officials said Gilmer’s death and Qualls’ arrest highlighted a persistent problem among youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among teens in this country, beating out tobacco and illicit drugs.

“We’ve had several incidents with minors,” said Anderson, the police sergeant. “Seat belts, alcohol and speed are the issues. That’s where we are with the juveniles. They just seem to not think when they get in their vehicles.”

Sgt. Tim Wynn said he knows the families involved, and added, “They’re good folks.” Underage drinking is a vexing problem but isn’t any worse now than it’s been before, he said.

“It’s unfortunate, and it magnifies when you have stuff like this, but it’s just what do you do?” he said. “Unless you put one of those bungee cords on their hip and walk with them everywhere, it’s hard to combat it.”

John Doheny is a local addiction counselor who treats several youths battling underage drinking. He said one of the main issues he encounters is a breakdown in communication between parents and their teens about alcohol.

“A lot of parents have this attitude that it’s kids being kids and it’s a rite of passage almost,” he said in a telephone interview. “In addiction treatment, they talk about denial a lot. What I’d say is there’s a whole social denial that goes along with underage drinking. People are just almost not willing to be aware.”

Doheny added that, “Drinking is so much a part of adult social life, there’s not a communication of values related to that. “Parents aren’t telling their kids this is for adults. You don’t do this until you’re an adult, and when you do do it, you do it responsibly.”

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