Survivors claim system gave suspended driver 'license to kill'

NICK WERNER

Staff

By NICK WERNER


 

 

MUNCIE, IN -- News this weekend that Robert D. Whitney is facing criminal charges in Illinois in connection with a fatal traffic accident sparked outrage in Shirley Morris.

Morris's father, 65-year-old Buckie Randolph, was killed in March 2000 outside his South Liberty Street home after Whitney struck Randolph with a car and then fled the scene.

"I'm so furious with the system," Morris said. "Now, it has all come back up again, and I'm having to grieve again, and my family is having to grieve again. It's wrong. They let him get a license to kill."

Whitney pleaded guilty in 2001 to causing a death while operating a motor vehicle with a controlled substance in his blood, a class C felony, and was sentenced to a maximum eight-year prison term.

Then-Delaware Circuit Court 1 Judge Steven Caldemeyer also suspended Whitney's driving privileges for life.

After Whitney's parole release in 2005, however, the Albany man somehow received an Indiana license to drive a commercial truck.

And on July 6, authorities said, the truck-driving Whitney set in motion a chain of events that killed 15-year-old Janelle Durk of Linden, Mich., and another truck driver, in a crash on Interstate 70 west of the Indiana-Illiniois border.

Clark County, Ill., prosecutors have charged Whitney with two counts of reckless homicide, driving under the influence of drugs and violating federal motor carrier laws.

Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokesman Greg Cook said Monday that the Delaware County clerk's office did not notify the BMV of Caldemeyer's decision to permanently suspend Whitney's license until Aug. 10, 2006, more than a month after the fatal I-70 accident and five years after the judge's order.

"That's certainly not a normal processing timeline," Cook said.

 

The clerk's office was investigating the problem Monday, pulling Whitney's old court file and printing out court dockets in search of information about any mistakes, Delaware County Clerk Karen Wenger told The Star Press.

"When you are an administrator of a large office, you don't know how everyone does each task," Wenger said.

Janelle Durk's parents, Robert and Sherry Durk, said they hold Whitney's parole officer, Heather Pierce, as responsible as anyone else.

"I just don't understand how this could happen," Robert Durk said. "She let him slip through her fingers."

Pierce said she knew Whitney was driving a truck for a living, but did not question why or how.

"Because he showed proof that the BMV granted his license," Pierce said. "If the BMV grants a driver's license, we have no reason to question it."

Pierce referred further questions to her supervisor, Victoria Fafata.

Fafata did not return a phone call to her New Castle office.

Parolees are allowed to leave the state with the permission of a parole agent and the district supervisor's approval.

It was unclear whether Whitney had permission to leave the state at the time of the fatal interstate crash.

Authorities said Whitney apparently fell asleep, and his rig hit a guard rail and then blocked part of the interstate's eastbound lanes.

In the minutes that followed, another eastbound semi-tractor slammed into stopped traffic, fatally injuring that truck driver, 56-year-old Dale Headley of Salem, Ill., and Janelle Durk, a passenger in a stopped car.

Sherry Durk and Shirley Morris spoke to each other by phone Sunday after news broke in Muncie about the Illinois crash.

"I was so scared of talking to her because I didn't know what to say to her," Morris said.

Morris said she feels cheated by the system not only because Whitney was allowed to drive again, but also because he has failed to pay almost $4,000 in restitution for her father's burial.

The emotional toll on Sherry and Robert Durk has also grown as they learn more about Whitney's past from Morris and news accounts.

"Everything is starting to unravel and the whole story is starting to unfold," Sherry Durk said. "I find myself crying more."

Contact news reporter Nick Werner at 213-5832.

Justice for Janelle site

Robert and Sherry Durk, whose 15-year-old daughter, Janelle, died this summer in an interstate highway accident involving convicted felon Robert D. Whitney, have created a Web site -- www.justiceforjanelle.com -- about their daughter's death. The site focuses on improving safety in the trucking industry.

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