HOWLAND - A 20-year-old who apparently fell asleep at the wheel and crashed on King Graves Road on Sunday night "most likely" caused the death of pedestrian Antoinette Ross, whose body was found in a ditch along the road Monday morning, officials said.
Details about the crash suspected of killing Ross, 55, of Howland, were released by the Ohio State Highway Patrol on Friday.
Patrick Niess of Warren was driving a maroon 1997 Nissan Pathfinder (not a Honda CR-V as previously reported by Trumbull County 911) westbound on King Graves Road about 9:52 p.m. Sunday, according to both the patrol and Howland reports. Howland Patrolman Sean Stephens responded to the crash.
A Friday highway patrol news release indicates that Niess apparently fell asleep and drove off the north side of the roadway. He went into a ditch and struck a culvert and traffic sign before coming to a rest some 600 feet west of where Ross' body was discovered Monday morning by local trash collector Joe Giancola.
Niess was wearing a seatbelt and suffered no injuries from the accident. He was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the initial investigation.
While the patrol reports Niess' accident "was most likely that which struck Mrs. Ross," they are waiting on forensic testing from Niess' vehicle and evidence from the scene to confirm the connection. The patrol has said that they believe Ross was hit by a vehicle between 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday.
"In the event that the testing concludes that Mr. Niess' vehicle did not strike Mrs. Ross, we will then complete two separate crash reports, exonerating Mr. Niess." Patrol Lt. Holt Brian said, "Conversely, if the results conclude his vehicle did strike Mrs. Ross, we will then consult the Trumbull County Prosecutor's Office for possible charges. In either case, we are certain that Mr. Niess did not realize that he struck Mrs. Ross."
Giancola told the Tribune Chronicle his story of discovering Ross while on a trash collecting route and expressed anger over the possibility that police may have overlooked Ross' body while responding to Niess' accident. His story was published in Thursday's paper and is available at tribtoday.com.
Howland police Chief Paul Monroe disagrees with Giancola's conclusions concerning the accident.
"Perspectives are everything and the garbage man's perspective and what really happened are, there is a huge difference. He got a quick view," Monroe said.
Monroe returned to the scene Friday to expound the events of Sunday night and Monday morning.
"The officer went to the crash scene and looked and he could see where the vehicle went off into the ditch as reported to him, which is consistent. By the time he cleared the scene, it was a quarter to 11, his shift was over at 11, there's no completed crash report," Monroe said. "You have a one-car crash with property damage, mainly to the vehicle. The vehicle was towed from the scene. It's a routine that that crash report would not be finished that night, before the end of his shift."
The area the officer checked, which begins close to the road sign that Niess struck, was about 400 feet short of where Ross was found.
"But in fact - and this is speculative I mean I can't tell you this for sure, everybody has their own theory of things - that that vehicle went out the road back here," Monroe said. "Look at the distance between here and where the officer was at. The victim's body was right here."
On the following Monday when Ross was discovered, Monroe said he was one of the first officers on the scene.
"After looking at the scene, I contacted the State Patrol, met with Lt. Holt and Sgt. (Jeff) Klem and at my request, we requested them to take over the crash, made them fully aware at the moment they got there that we had a crash there and it was a possibility that those two crashes, or that crash is linked with the fatal pedestrian."
Turning crashes that are fatal or that involve serious injuries over to the patrol is Howland's protocol, Monroe said, because they have greater resources with which to work. Monroe said there was no hesitation bringing in the patrol.
"The garbage man, his perception, he sees this victim and has no idea where the police officers were," Monroe said. "There's absolutely no lighting, the victim was dressed in dark clothing and blended in and there was no indication that there was anyone there. We are sorry that we did not recover her remains that night. It's a mistake on our part and we wish we could have corrected it."
Until the patrol can "scientifically connect the dots," Monroe said it is not fair to link Niess' accident with the death of Ross. If the connection is confirmed, he said actions taken against the responding officer will be made within the department.