OKEECHOBEE — The state has dropped its case against a man who was blamed for driving his SUV at a high rate of speed when it wrecked and killed a 17-year-old Okeechobee girl.
Nathaniel Aaron Doctor, S.E. 23rd St., was initially charged with causing the Aug. 15, 2014, crash on S.W. Fifth Avenue at S.W. 17th Street. He was charged with driving under the influence causing death, and vehicular manslaughter.
He was later charged with two additional counts of driving under the influence causing serious bodily injury to another.
Doctor, who was 18 at the time, was accused of driving his 2014 Audi SQ5 sports utility vehicle in excess of 90 mph when it left the roadway around 7 a.m. That crash claimed the life of Briana Kay Banuelos, a passenger in the vehicle.
Also in the vehicle were Lacy Leigh Altman and Zachary Blaise Wingfield. They were 20 and 19 years of age, respectively.
Assistant state attorney Don Richardson said he had no choice but to drop all charges against Doctor.
“We have had a significant erosion of evidence since the case was filed,” he said in a Tuesday, Feb. 2, interview.
He said no one will be charged, “unless we get some additional evidence.”
When asked why the charges were dropped, Mr. Richardson said he could not put anybody behind the wheel of the SUV at the time of the crash.
He went on to explain that immediately after the crash Altman and Wingfield were taken to Raulerson Hospital, and it was while he was being treated for his injuries that Wingfield reportedly said Doctor was driving the vehicle.
However, Wingfield has since changed his mind and claimed it was actually Altman who was behind the wheel of the Audi, not Doctor.
Mr. Richardson went on to point out that Wingfield currently has a lawsuit filed against Doctor.
Also, another young man who was with the group a littler earlier, has come forward and said Altman was driving the SUV when he got out of the vehicle.
The prosecutor said Elijah Juan Williams was in the vehicle with the others until they let him out just minutes before the crash. Mr. Richardson said the young man said he no longer wanted to be in the car because he thought it was unsafe, so they dropped him off at his cousin’s home.
“Elijah Juan Williams has no interest in this case because he is friends with everyone,” said Mr. Richardson.
Mr. Richardson went on to explain that although blood was found on the driver’s airbag, there’s virtually no way to tell how it got there because the vehicle rolled violently. According to the report by Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Corporal Raymond Stuhr, who investigated the crash, the SUV rotated counterclockwise, struck a large tree, a mailbox, a metal utility pole guide wire, a second tree, a wooden power utility pole and a second mailbox.
Because of all that, said Mr. Richardson, “we don’t know how it (the blood) got there.”
After pouring over the case several times since November of last year, Mr. Richardson said he finally came to the conclusion he couldn’t move forward with the case.
“I had a reasonable doubt. After looking at the case, I had a reasonable doubt,” he said.
It was obvious that his having to drop the case was a big disappointment to Mr. Richardson. But, an even bigger disappointment for him was the fact that he could not get justice for Ms. Banuelos.
“She was the innocent one. She had no drugs or alcohol in her system,” he said.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News