Two Fort Benning soldiers charged in a fatal five-car crash Saturday spent the hours before the wreck on a drinking and huffing binge, taking shots of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons, investigators said today. Jacob J. Keller, 20, and Kyle D. Ojeda, 27, face several charges in connection with the Buena Vista Road pile-up, which authorities said caused the death of Willie Lawrence, a 55-year-old Columbus mechanic who was the father of seven children.
Both soldiers pleaded not guilty to several charges —including felony possession of a dangerous drug — during a preliminary hearing that shed new light on the crash. Authorities also charged Keller with vehicular homicide.
Ojeda told authorities he couldn’t remember the crash, but he offered police a detailed synopsis of the drunken hours leading up to it. The soldiers began the day with a trip to Peachtree Mall and then stopped by a Circle K to buy some lottery tickets.
The drinking began shortly thereafter, police said, when the men bought a bottle of whiskey at Crazy Cecil’s and began taking shots in the parking lot. With Ojeda driving, the soldiers rode around town and finished the bottle, police testified.
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They stopped by a novelty shop — which police did not identify — and bought a pack of nitrous oxide capsules. They went to another store to buy some balloons, which they used to inhale the laughing gas.
Police later searched Ojeda’s 2006 Ford Explorer and said they found 14 empty “Supercharger” nitrous oxide canisters of gas.
After at least three hits of the gas apiece, the soldiers stopped at a gas station, bought some Red Bull energy drinks and used the rest room. Ojeda said he was too “buzzed” and light-headed at this point to continue driving and handed the keys to Keller, who drove to another liquor store.
Shortly before the crash, the men bought another bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
The crash happened about 6:45 p.m. at Buena Vista and Floyd roads. Keller was speeding and swerving through traffic on Buena Vista when he struck an Oldsmobile Cutlass in which Lawrence was a passenger. Family members said Lawrence had been on his way to visit a friend.
The Cutlass was stopped and waiting to turn left on Floyd when it was hit from behind, pushed into oncoming traffic and struck by a Toyota Tundra headed the opposite way on Buena Vista.
Keller continued east after the initial crash, according to authorities, and ran into the back of a Ford pickup, which fish-tailed and hit a 2007 Dodge Magnum. Police said seven people were injured in the crash. Lawrence was rushed to The Medical Center and pronounced dead at 9:40 p.m.
Police said they struggled to remove Keller from the Explorer because he refused to cooperate with first responders. Once he finally was in handcuffs, police said the soldier began mumbling to himself and head-butted a window of the Explorer, shattering the glass.
Police charged Ojeda with a dangerous drug violation — based on his statement about inhaling laughing gas — reckless conduct, open container, furnishing alcohol to a minor and no proof of insurance. The insurance citation was dismissed after Ojeda’s father appeared in court today with proof of insurance.
Lawrence’s family attended the preliminary hearing hoping to learn more about the fatal crash that has upended their lives. The family was still waiting for Lawrence’s body to be returned from an autopsy, and funeral arrangements had not been finalized.
“He was a good father,” said Kelita Rogers, who stood next to the children outside Recorder’s Court.
Lawrence was to be married on May 19, Rogers said.
“A lot of people are in shock,” she said.