The 33-year-old woman charged in the Sept. 4 death of 15-year-old Justin “JP” Johanson was driving under the influence of alcohol and distracted by her GPS when she struck him on River Road, according to testimony Thursday morning in Columbus Recorder’s Court.
Christine Mennona of Cape Coral, Fla., pleaded not guilty to first-degree vehicular homicide, driving under the influence and distracted driving. Judge Michael Joyner granted her own recognizance bonds, reiterating officers’ testimonies about her willingness to cooperate with police.
The case was bound over to Superior Court.
Cpl. John Papay said the Columbus Police Department’s Motor Squad was called to the intersection of River Road and Bradley Park Drive on Sept. 4 around 3:33 a.m. to investigate a fatal wreck.
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Upon arrival, he found a 2011 Kia Optima driven by Mennona in the southbound lane of River Road with its hazard lights on. Police said it was parked about 370 feet away from Johanson, who was lying in the roadway.
Mennona told officers she was visiting Columbus on Sept. 3 for a softball tournament. She headed to Pittsview, Ala., to take a nap and shower before returning to Columbus later that night.
She and her three friends were at the Outlaws Saloon at 6499 Veterans Parkway until it closed, Papay testified.
With her friends in the car, Mennona allegedly drove about 35 mph, within the 40 mph speed limit, before she got to the intersection of River Road and Bradley Park Drive. She looked down at the GPS and soon after noticed an object in the roadway that she said resembled a trash bag, according to her statement to police.
She struck Johanson and immediately stopped the car, authorities said.
“At that time, she slammed on her brakes and parked her vehicle,” Papay said. “The occupants of her vehicle ran toward what they had struck. At which time, she called 911.”
Sixth arrest in case
Authorities said Johanson was lying in the roadway before he was struck by the vehicle, but they aren’t sure why. An autopsy report revealed that he had a blood alcohol level of .224 before he was hit by the vehicle, Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan said.
Officials said the 15-year-old Northside High student was sleeping over a friend’s home with a group of people that night. He was riding around with his friends and they stopped at the intersection of Cascade Court and Green Island Drive.
“According to the juveniles in there, he got out of the vehicle and ran back onto Green Island Drive,” Papay testified. “They looked for him throughout the night. After approximately 45 minutes to an hour of looking for him, they returned back to the residence.”
Mennona is the sixth person to be arrested in the case.
Giovanni Montesclaros, 17, was taken into custody on Sept. 14 in connection with the incident. He was charged with purchasing alcoholic beverages for minors, false statement and writings, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, furnishing alcohol beverages to persons under 21, possession of false identification document and attempting to purchase alcohol by misrepresenting identity.
Four juveniles whose ages range from 15 to 16 were also arrested between Sept. 16 and Sept 19 in connection with the incident. They were taken into custody on various charges, including curfew violation, minor in possession of alcohol and obstruction by lying to police.
During court testimony on Thursday, Officer Charles Daugherty said he could smell alcohol on Mennona when he approached her at the crash scene. He asked her if she had been drinking and she denied that but consented to a standardized field sobriety test.
Daugherty said “everything was normal,” aside from the “strong odor of alcohol.”
She was then transported to Midtown Medical Center, where her blood was drawn at 5:36 a.m. and officials determined that her blood alcohol level was .059. Under state law, an adult is legally drunk with a blood alcohol content at 0.08.
“Alcohol is metabolized in the body at a rate of .15 grams per hour,” Daugherty testified. “Based on the time lapse between the accident and the blood was draw, it can be assumed that the defendant’s blood alcohol concentration at the time of the accident was higher than reported by the blood alcohol test.”
Daugherty said the BAC level can be estimated by adding the amount of alcohol that was metabolized during the time of the crash to the BAC that was obtained through the blood test.
“Myself and officer Campbell looked over the information that was provided,” Daugherty testified. “Using basic math, we were able to determine that at the time of the accident her BAC level was at .089 grams.”
Daugherty said she wasn’t arrested until Wednesday because police wanted to conduct a thorough investigation before filing charges.
“We look at everything before we put charges on somebody,” Daugherty said.
‘It’s just tragic’
Attorney Bobby Jones, who is representing Mennona, thanked police for being fair in a case he calls tragic for all those involved.
“It’s just tragic all the way around,” Jones said. “Ms. Mennona is having flashbacks and bad dreams about it. Of course, her heart goes out to the family.”
He said his client has never faced been arrested or issued a traffic ticket.
Jones said he isn’t sure the incident could have been avoided considering the circumstances.
“When you play ball all day and then it’s late at night at 3:30 a.m. in the morning, you have to be tired,” said the attorney. “You can’t be at your best or your normal alertness. I don’t know whether it was her looking down at her GPS or what.”
“Because if it looks like a bag in the road, you’re just going to continue on. I don’t know if it could have been avoided.”