The driver who killed himself and four others Saturday morning in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 75 had been released from jail 33 hours earlier in connection with a separate suspected drunken driving crash.
Authorities suspect alcohol played a role in this deadly two-vehicle crash in downtown Dayton, which claimed the life of at-fault driver James Pohlabeln, a 61-year-old retiree, and four young friends: Kyle Canter, 23, of New Carlisle; Earl Miller II, 27, of New Carlisle; Vashti Nicole Brown, 29, of Dayton; and Devin Bachmann, 26, of Huber Heights.
The three men were in a hard rock band, CounterFlux, that played across the region. The members dedicated their lives to music, friends and family said.
The collision underscores the risks involved with intoxicated driving, police said, which they blame in part for increases in fatal crashes last year.
“Don’t drink and drive,” Dayton police Sgt. Matt Beavers said.
Wrong-way crashes are especially lethal, and authorities have tried to address the problem by recently testing sensor systems to notify law enforcement when motorists drive on the wrong side of the road.
Crashes involving five or more fatalities are rare. The Ohio State Highway Patrol didn’t record a fatal crash involving more than four victims in 2015.
‘It was coming right at me’
At about 3 a.m. Saturday, 9-1-1 dispatchers received a call from a motorist saying that a four-door sedan was driving the wrong way on I-75.
The witness said he was driving northbound and encountered the sedan driving southbound in the wrong lanes. The witness pulled over to avoid a collision.
“It was coming right at me,” he said.
Dispatchers then received a call from a woman reporting a two-vehicle crash on I-75 near the construction in downtown Dayton, south of Ohio 4.
“There is a car on top of another car; the people are stuck inside,” the woman said.
The same sedan was also reported going the wrong way on Ohio 4 — southbound in the northbound lanes — prior to the crash.
Pohlabeln’s car collided head-first into a sport utility vehicle, which then flipped over onto its roof. The SUV was carrying Canter, Miller, Brown and Bachmann.
All four occupants of the SUV, along with the driver of the sedan, died at the scene, Beavers said.
Chris Dues, 32, of Springfield, Ky., was one of the first people to discover the crash scene on I-75. He said the pickup in front of him had to swerve to miss striking the wrecked vehicles.
Dues, a trucker of 11 years, said the crash likely happened a minute or two before he arrived.
Dues pulled over and saw multiple people trapped inside the vehicle. He checked the pulse of one of the passengers in the SUV, but detected nothing.
The SUV was upside down and was “mashed down in.”
“It was horrific,” he said. “There was no front end on either of the vehicles. There was an alternator 10 feet from the car, just sitting out in the road. It was crazy.”
Dues said he believes the sedan hit the SUV so hard the truck flipped over and landed on the front of the car. He stayed on the scene until the fire department showed up.
He was troubled to learn on Saturday afternoon that five people were killed in the incident.
“Oh my gosh … that’s horrible,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life, and I can go the rest of my life without seeing it again, unless I can save someone next time.”
Released from jail hours before crash
Pohlabeln was retired and lived on his investment income and savings from his retirement account, according to records related to his divorce case. He lived at a Dayton home he has owned since the 1970s and bought from his parents, the records show.
Pohlabeln had been living in hotels and motels for a stint but moved back into his home in December.
About 48 hours before Saturday’s fatal crash, Pohlabeln was arrested after crashing into two parked cars.
At about 2:20 a.m. Thursday, Pohlabeln was driving eastbound on East Fourth Street near Bell Street in a 1997 Chevy Silverado when he “apparently lost control and collided” with a parked car, a crash report says. The crash pushed the car he struck into another parked car, the report said.
The report gives the offense charged as “operating a motor vehicle without reasonable control.” Pohlabeln was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and failure to control.
He pleaded not guilty in municipal court and a judge released him on his own recognizance, according to court records. He got out of jail about 7 p.m. Thursday.
Members of the Pohlabeln family declined to comment but expressed condolences to the families of the four crash victims.
Bachmann, Canter and Miller were in a hard rock band together called CounterFlux.
Bachmann was the vocalist and Canter and Miller played guitar, according to their band’s Facebook page.
They have played at venues across the region, including the Old Crow Bar in Middletown, and have performed in Kentucky as well.
CounterFlux bass player Aleks Clayborn posted on the band’s Facebook page that the men were like brothers. He issued a plea for anyone going out drinking to use designated drivers or cabs.
“There’s nothing worse than losing friends, family or otherwise … Your actions and choices affect more than just you and though a totaled car can be replaced a life cannot,” Clayborn said.
Devin Bachmann’s father, Scott Bachmann, also posted on the band’s Facebook page.
“This isn’t a joke or a prank. I’ve lost my boy. But he at least got to do what he loved,” Scott Bachmann said.
Kimberly Wurkowski said her son Justin Neace of New Carlisle is a drummer in the band and that he joined the group after an audition about two years ago.
Neace and friends of the band members jammed in the garage Saturday night in honor of the CounterFlux members who died, according to Neace’s stepfather Chris Wurkowski.
“(Neace) had plans to go out with them last night. He was supposed to go out but he had to work,” Chris Wurkowski said.
The band was booked to play Feb. 20 at Wings in Vandalia, he said.
Marques McConnell and Devin Bachmann were friends and played together in a band called Chapter III. McConnell also played drums for CounterFlux when the band was first formed in 2013, he said.
“Devin really appreciated hard rock music,” McConnell said. “He loved (the band) Smile Empty Soul.”
Unhappy with the direction of popular music, Bachmann was passionate about bringing back the “Smile Empty Soul new rock-style” back, McConnell said.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” McConnell said. “He was all about reaching his goals.”
CounterFlux was recently working on a new album, McConnell said.
“He wanted to make music his No. 1 priority,” McConnell said.
‘Turn to alcohol’
Ten fatal crashes occurred across the state related to the driver traveling the wrong way or on the wrong side in 2014, the most recent information available from the Ohio Department of Public Safety. The previous year 12 were reported.
Last year more than 1,000 fatal crashes occurred in Ohio, up about 100 crashes from the year before.
Across Ohio the state patrol has seen a jump in OVI-related enforcement actions this year. So far this year troopers have made more than 2,780 OVI-related enforcements, compared to 2,250 at the same time last year.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Sgt. Frank Simmons, with the Ohio State Highway Patrol Dayton post on Saturday. “It can be attributed to enforcement. We have less troopers on the road. We’re trying to get our numbers back up.”
The local economy can also play a role in the increase in OVIs, Simmons said.
“Folks are out of work,” he said. “They could be going through some type of depression to where they turn to alcohol. They get in the car and they drive.”
This newspaper previously reported Ohio had planned to pilot a program with SpeedInfo to test whether its current highway sensors along I-70 could detect wrong-way drivers and alert law enforcement. However, the test was delayed in spring 2015 as the technology wasn’t yet as accurate as the company wanted. Neither state patrol or SpeedInfo representatives could be reached Saturday to get an update on the pilot program.
Safety experts have also considered other alternatives such as placing sensors at exit ramps, which would provide early detection, but it would be costly to install, according to previous interviews with SpeedInfo.