Man found guilty of DUI, kidnapping

Published 2:41 pm Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jerry Van Wagner of Bay St. Louis, was found guilty of aggravated DUI and kidnapping in Pearl River County Circuit Court on Tuesday.

During court proceedings this week the District Attorney’s office portrayed the events leading up to 27 year-old Crystal Brasher’s death as a kidnapping that ended with an accident caused by Jerry Van Wagner driving while intoxicated.

After a day and a half of court proceedings, the jury found him guilty of both charges.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The events leading up to the case involved a traffic accident that ended in the death of Brasher, who was from Alabama. In a story about the accident that ran in April of 2009, Brasher was initially identified by officers as the driver of the vehicle. Monday afternoon, evidence was produced that Van Wagner, then 38, was driving the car at the time of the accident and had lied to officers and the county coroner during their investigation.

The accident occurred on April 26, 2009, while the couple was traveling northbound on Interstate 59. The vehicle was said to have left the road, overcorrected and then rolled several times, ejecting Brasher. During court proceedings evidence was presented to the jury by The prosecution, led by District Attorney Hal Kittrell and Assistant District Attorney Manya Creel Bryan, provided evidence of abuse of Brasher the previous day by Van Wagner.

Chief Matt Barnett, of the Wiggins Police Department, testified that he was working for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department in 2009. On April 25, he was patrolling McLeod Water Park, where the couple was living. Barnett saw Brasher at their camp and noticed that she had a swollen eye, bruises on the right side of her face and blood in her hair. He stopped to investigate and 30 minutes later arrested Van Wagner for domestic violence. During the incident, Barnett gave Brasher a card with contact information for the Gulf Coast Women’s Center, which helps battered women.

Brasher bonded Van Wagner out of jail just after midnight, the defense said. The following morning, the couple packed up their belongings and began to head north on Interstate 59. Just before mile marker 8 on the interstate, eye witnesses stated the vehicle left the road and flipped several times. Jacquelyn Benedict who was driving behind Van Wagner’s vehicle, saw the Isuzu Rodeo swerve from the left lane and cross the right lane before leaving the road. As the car left the road ,Van Wagner overcorrected, flipping the car several times. When the car came to rest, Benedict said she and her passenger called 911 and got out to assist the injured. After unbuckling Van Wagner and helping him from the driver’s seat of the vehicle because the vehicle appeared to be leaking gas, she  went to check on the passenger of the vehicle, Brasher, who had been ejected.

When Benedict found Brasher, she was lying on the roadside severely injured and had a heavy tow chain wrapped around her legs from her knees to her ankles. Benedict said she helped another citizen remove the chains from Brasher’s legs.

Benedict said she also spoke with Van Wagner at the scene, who claimed that Brasher was his daughter.

“He just kept saying, ‘That’s my daughter. I love you, I’m sorry. I love you, I’m sorry,” Benedict said.

Another concerned citizen who stopped, Regina Fallon, also said she saw Van Wagner in the driver’s seat of the vehicle after it stopped flipping and said she saw the chains on Brasher’s legs.

Both Brasher and Van Wagner were taken to Highland Community Hospital where Brasher was eventually pronounced dead about an hour and a half after the accident occurred. Trooper Michael Westbrook, who investigated the accident, said accounts given on scene and a statement given by Van Wagner conflicted. Witnesses told Westbrook that Van Wagner was driving, but Van Wagner told Westbrook and Pearl River County Coroner Derek Turnage that Brasher was driving and he was asleep in the passenger seat.

While investigating the incident at the hospital, Westbrook said he could smell alcohol on Van Wagner, so Westbrook asked him to submit to a blood test. Those results would later come back from the Mississippi Crime Lab to show Van Wagner’s blood alcohol level was at 0.11 percent, the legal limit is 0.08 percent, said Forensic Toxicologist Duriel McKinsey.

During Turnage’s investigation of the incident and observation of her remains, he found the card from the Gulf Coast Women’s Center still in Brasher’s pocket. Turnage said he found “circumstances of the event that needed an autopsy.” While Turnage did not specify, a picture of Brasher’s bruises taken at the hospital was shown to the jury. Due to the results of his investigation, Turnage had doubts about whether Brasher was the driver, going so far as to include a question mark on his report when marking her as the driver.

Defense attorneys Lin Carter and Robert Whitacre, attempted to portray the accident as just that, an event caused by a tire blow out. In photos shown to the jury there was a flat tire on the front driver’s side of the vehicle. However, testimony given by Mississippi Highway Patrol Accident Reconstructionist Master Sgt. Jay Kelly showed that if there was a blow out on the driver’s side, then the rim would have shown evidence of wear from contacting the roadway and the vehicle would have actually pulled to the left hand side of the road, instead of the right hand side as tire marks indicated. Kelly also said if there had been a blow out then the road would have displayed signs of gouges from where the metal rim contacted the road.

The defense called only two witnesses to attempt to portray Van Wagner as a caring boyfriend.

After nearly three hours the jury came back with a verdict of guilty on both counts.

Kittrell said the District Attorney’s office plans to present habitual offender evidence against Van Wagner. According to a motion to amend the indictment filed in Circuit Court, Van Wagner has been convicted of burglary in 1997 and of felony DUI in 2001, both in the state of Alabama.

A sentencing date for Van Wagner has not been set, since the habitual offender hearing needs to be held first, Kittrell said. For the DUI conviction Van Wagner will receive 25 years, to be served day for day. As for the kidnapping conviction, he can receive a sentence up to a day less than life, but that will up to the Harrell’s discretion.

“This thing could add up to be quite a number of years,” Kittrell said.