ON THE RECORD: ‘Almost suicidal’: Woman headed to trial after series of accidents, which left man dead

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:21 am on Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nicole Stapleton


HOWARD CITY — Chilling details recently came forth at a preliminary examination about a series of multi-vehicle collisions resulting in the death of one man and the injuries of several others.

Nicole Stapleton, 31, of Howard City, is charged with operating while intoxicated while under the influence, causing the death of John Reniff, 31, of Gladstone, formerly of Howard City. The charge is a felony with a possible 15-year prison sentence.

Stapleton also is charged with reckless driving causing death, a felony with a possible 15-year prison sentence; operating while intoxicated causing serious injury to Reniff’s passenger, Melissa Ballard, a possible five-year felony; reckless driving causing serious injury, a possible five-year felony; and failure to stop at the scene of a personal injury accident, a misdemeanor with a possible one-year jail sentence.

While Stapleton did have a low level of Valium-related chemicals in her system, she had no other drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of the series of collisions of her truck with three other vehicles.

As Montcalm County 64B District Court Judge Donald Hemingsen observed at the June 14 preliminary examination, “The driving … was not normal driving. It was anything but. One could argue that it’s more than just abnormal, it’s almost suicidal.”

Stapleton was bound over from 64B District Court to 8th Judicial Circuit Court for trial, which is scheduled to start Sept. 16.


‘I knew I was going to get hit’

John and Teena Adams of Howard City were returning from breakfast in Sand Lake the morning of Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012.

John recalls the day as being sunny, clear and dry. As they drove in their Volkswagen Jetta northbound on Federal Road toward Howard City, Teena noticed a Chevrolet Silverado coming up behind them “really fast.” John wasn’t worried, as no one else was on the road. He assumed the truck would pass them.

He was wrong.

John estimates he was driving about 55 miles per hour — the speed limit on Federal Road south of Howard City — when he realized the truck wasn’t going to stop. It was going to him them, and hard. He made a split second decision.

“I sped up because I was going to get impacted,” he said. “I knew I was going to get hit and I floored it.”

The truck hit the car at a high rate of speed. The back end of the Jetta lifted up off the road and the trunk collapsed. Amazingly, the Adams were not injured in the collision. Both vehicles continued going northbound, the truck still behind the car.

“I did not put the brakes on at that time either because my rearview mirror was full of a white truck,” John said.

John was afraid of getting hit again. He continued driving at a high rate of speed to keep ahead of the truck. He was hoping the truck would pull over on the side of the road.

The Silverado didn’t pull over. Instead, it went to pass the Jetta. John looked out his window as the truck flew by. What he saw amazed him.

The driver’s side airbag of the Silverado was completely deployed. And yet the truck continued on its way, even faster than before.

“They were just driving like they had never been in an accident,” John said. “The person driving the vehicle actually completed a perfect passing maneuver, got in front of my car, and went right into the northbound lane and went straight ahead, like no swerving, nothing.”

John and Teena attempted to read the license plate of the truck, but their four-cylinder Jetta with standard transmission was no match for the Silverado. All John could see was the word “Thor” in big letters on the back of the vanishing truck.

The truck continued to drive into Howard City at an increasing rate of speed. The Adams continued to follow behind at a distance. They would soon witness an even more horrifying collision.


John Refiff


Sudden death

Julie Osbourne of Howard City dropped off her children for Sunday school at about 8:45 a.m. that morning. The teacher then headed over to MacNaughton Elementary School in Howard City to catch up on some classroom work.

Osbourne was in her Chrysler Town & Country minivan southbound on Federal Road waiting to turn left on Walnut Street when she saw a truck coming northbound, very fast. She saw other vehicles pulling off the road, attempting to get out of the way of the truck. She saw a Chevrolet Tahoe coming through the intersection.

Everything happened very fast.

The Silverado hit the Tahoe, forcing the Tahoe and the minivan to collide. The Silverado continued north, just missing the Dairy Bear ice cream parlor before striking a tree and finally coming to a rest.

John Reniff and Melissa Ballard had just left the Tour Inn in Howard City. The engaged couple was headed to Reniff’s grandmother’s house just a few blocks away to celebrate the grandmother’s birthday. They never made it.

Ballard doesn’t remember seeing the truck coming. She only remembers getting hit. Something hit the back of Reniff’s head as the three vehicles collided, shattering his skull and instantly knocking him out. He never woke up. He was airlifted to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, where died that night.

Ballard sustained a broken arm, a tailbone injury and other injuries. She and Osbourne were taken together by ambulance to the Grand Rapids hospital. Osbourne, who suffered minor injuries all over her body, missed a week of work. Ballard wasn’t able to go back to work until the following September due to her severe injuries.


Police testimony

Randy Hansen was a Montcalm County sheriff’s deputy at the time of the accidents. He has since retired. He responded to the second series of crashes. He also interviewed Stapleton in the hospital the day after the accidents.

Hansen testified that Stapleton didn’t remember being involved in multiple crashes. He said she thought she had struck the Jetta in Howard City, not south of town where the first accident occurred. He said she didn’t have any memory of the other crashes. He said she never claimed her vehicle malfunctioned.

Richard Buxton, a detective with the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office, was called in to Montcalm County to examine the black boxes on the Silverado and the Tahoe. The black boxes contain event data about how a vehicle most recently operated.

Buxton testified that according to the Silverado’s black box, the Silverado was going approximately 80 miles per hour when it struck the Jetta south of Howard City. That crash caused the Silverado to lose about 45 miles per hour of its speed.

Buxton testified that according to the black box, the Silverado was going approximately 100 miles per hour as it came into town, meaning it had sped up again. The Tahoe was going approximately 20 miles per hour when it was struck by the Silverado. The speed limit in town where the three vehicles collided is 35 miles per hour.

According to the Silverado’s black box, the driver never hit the brakes before any of the crashes.

Carol Meyer was a trooper with the Michigan State Police at the time of the accidents. She has since retired. Meyer testified about going to the hospital in Grand Rapids to draw blood from Stapleton. She said she found Stapleton in the emergency room with relatives and told her she was there to take a blood sample.

“She said, ‘Go ahead and take it,’” Meyer recalled.

Samantha Beauchamp, a forensic scientist with the Michigan State Police Forensic Laboratory in Lansing, testified that Stapleton’s blood sample showed 22 nanograms per milliliter of diazepam and 32 nanograms per milliliter of nordiazepam or n-diazepam. Diazepam is an active ingredient in Valium, an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drug. N-diazepam is what the body breaks down diazepam into.

Beauchamp said Stapleton’s levels of diazepam and n-diazepam were low, not even reaching a therapeutic level.

No other drugs or alcohol were found in Stapleton’s system.

Stapleton was not officially arrested and charged until January of this year.

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