Driver Says He Smoked Pot Oil, Took Meds Before Florida Crash That Killed 8 Workers

May 17, 2024

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A man with a long record of dangerous driving told investigators he smoked marijuana oil and took prescription drugs hours before he sideswiped a bus, killing eight Mexican farmworkers and injuring dozens more, according to an arrest report unsealed Wednesday.

Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence-manslaughter and remained jailed without bond for Tuesday’s crash. The Florida Highway Patrol says he drove his 2001 Ford pickup into the center line on a two-lane road and struck the bus, causing it to veer off the road, strike a tree and flip over.

The seasonal farmworkers were on their way early in the morning to harvest watermelon at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Orlando in north-central Florida’s Marion County, a rural area of rolling hills with numerous horse farms and abundant fruit and vegetable fields.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to support the victims, meeting with some at a hotel in Gainesville. Many were taken to AdventHealth Ocala hospital.

Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul in Orlando, told Spanish language news media that seven workers, three of whom were in critical condition, remained hospitalized as of Wednesday afternoon.

Sabines said they had contacted the families of the eight workers who were killed in the crash.

He also said inspectors from the Wage and Hour Division from the U.S. Department of Labor were performing inspections at the work site, and the consul encouraged workers to call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with anonymous tips if they had anything to report about the employer. The Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Sabines said he spoke with the 44-year-old bus driver, also a Mexican man with a visa.

“What he needs the most immediately is help with his mental health,” Sabines said.

In the pickup truck driver’s arrest report, state troopers say Howard had bloodshot and watery eyes and slurred speech after the crash, which he said he didn’t remember.

He told an investigator that he had crashed his mother’s car into a tree while avoiding an animal a few days earlier, and that on Monday night he had taken two anti-seizure drugs and medication for high blood pressure in addition to smoking marijuana oil. He said he woke up about five hours later and was driving to a methadone clinic where he receives daily medication for a chipped vertebrae, according to the affidavit.

Howard then failed several sobriety tests and was arrested, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

Responding to a judge by teleconference from jail on Wednesday, Howard said he’s a self-employed painter and drywall installer with $700 in the bank, no other assets and no dependents. Howard’s head was bandaged and he wore a protective gown typically given to inmates on suicide watch. The judge denied bond, appointed a public defender and set his next court appearance for next month.

Howard’s parents did not immediately respond to a Wednesday phone message seeking comment, and the Marion County public defender’s office declined comment.

Marion County court records show Howard has had at least three crashes and numerous traffic tickets dating back to 2006, including one citation for crossing the center line. His license has been suspended at least three times, the latest in 2021 for getting too many citations within a year. In 2013, he was convicted of grand theft. A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 Mexican farmworkers were on the bus, hired by a Mexican American farmer to work on the watermelon farm under H-2A visas. Florida farms use about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Six of the dead have been identified: Evarado Ventura Hernández, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24; Alfredo Tovar Sánchez, 20; Isaías Miranda Pascal, 21; José Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27; and Manuel Pérez Ríos, 46.

Jose Ventura told Univision that Evarado Ventura Hernandez was his younger brother, and he had helped him come to work in the United States. He said his brother left behind a young daughter.

“We just came for a better future, but now you can see what we found. We found death,” he told the Spanish-language broadcaster.

He sobbed as he added, “I was supposed to take care of my brother because he was the youngest.”

His sister, Norma Ventura Hernández, said she was angry.

“We are totally destroyed and it’s not right,” she said. “Let justice be done, and don’t allow all these deaths to go unpunished.”

More than two dozen people gathered at a memorial service for the victims Wednesday evening outside the Farmworker Association of Florida office, north of Orlando in Apopka, Florida. Some people held white crosses with the names of those killed, some spoke and some sang songs in Spanish.

“Thank you to all who have reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers” for the people hurt in the crash, Cannon Farms said in a Facebook post. It said the bus was operated by Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the crash. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to watermelon fields and then operate harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

A Labor Department document shows Olvera also applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month, again at a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Getting to and from the fields can be hazardous: Federal statistics show vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of 171 fatalities.

Olvera’s vehicle, which the highway patrol described as a “retired” school bus, did not have seat belts, Mexican consul Sabines said Wednesday.

The Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. Florida law already requires seat belts for farmworker transport using vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association has called the new federal seat belt requirement “impractical.”

Advocacy groups called for stricter laws and enforcement to protect farmworkers, while a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised nearly $58,000 by Wednesday evening.

Photo: The bus is removed after the crash in Ocala. (AP Photo/Alan Youngblood)

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