BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio — Emotional testimony from the utility workers who survived an April 2015 crash was heard Tuesday during the trial of a Cincinnati woman charged with aggravated vehicular homicide after one of those workers died.
Michele Schuster, 24, is also charged with three counts of vehicular assault and three counts of aggravated vehicular assault as well as misdemeanor OVI, for a crash that killed Amber Rooks, a 24-year-old mother, and injured three others along Cox Road in West Chester Twp.
Prosecutors say Schuster was impaired by un-prescribed Xanex when she slammed into the utility truck.
But defense attorney Lawrence Hawkins III told the jury during opening statements Monday that Schuster was drugged after meeting up with a man who wanted a romantic relationship, which she rebuffed.
Tiffanie McCants, a member of the utility crew working at the Cox Road site, entered the courtroom on crutches to testify. She told the jury she still has back and leg pain, her pinky finger goes numb and her shoulder goes out as a result of the crash.
McCants said she saw the car coming toward the group of workers.
“This black car just plowed into us … I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
McCants cried and covered her eyes as she remembered seeing her injured coworkers.
The car rolled over the head and chest of Rooks, McCants said.
“Joe was crumpled in a ball,” she said.
That coworker, Joe Oliphant, still has difficulty speaking and walking, his wife testified Tuesday.
Anita Oliphant choked back tears as she recalled seeing her husband unconscious in the hospital with a probe in his head. She said it took 11 days for her husband to regain consciousness, and he could not speak when he did.
The first time Oliphant saw her husband walk on his own was just a few months ago — in December. He still has difficulty speaking, she told the jury.
Blake Patton was in the bucket of the utility truck when the crash occurred.
“I get almost to the top of the pole and I felt a shove … it threw me,” Patton said. “I didn’t know what happened.”
Then he described the scene he saw when he looked down.
“I turned around to see the car that had hit my bucket throw Amber Rooks over the double yellow (line),” he said, adding that the front tire caught her hair and she stopped screaming.
Rooks died May 2 at an area hospital from injuries she suffered in the accident. She left behind an 8-year-old son.
Patton, who said he saw Oliphant’s body fly through the air, ran to his coworker.
“He convulsed as I held him and his eyes rolled back into his head,” Patton said.
West Chester Police Officer Jeff Newman, who was working off-duty to provide added security for the workers, testified he heard the crash, but did not see it because he was standing behind the utility truck.
“I heard a loud explosion turned around and Joe (Oliphant) was flying through the air,” Newman said.
After the crash, Newman said he ran to the car to turn off the engine because the tires were still spinning.
Schuster was mumbling and incoherent in the front seat, Newman testified, adding he detected a faint odor of alcohol in the vehicle.
The prosecution began building its case with two women who were in the area of Cox Road and Liberty Way at the time of the crash.
Chrisa Gooding, who was shopping with her sister, testified she saw Schuster’s car go left of center, striking the utility truck and then spin around.
Laura Digennero said she was waiting to turn onto Cox Road when she saw the car veer into the other lane and hit the utility truck.
“I threw (the) car in park, threw my keys and started running,” Digennero said. That’s when she said she saw Rooks with a serious head trauma.
This story was originally reported by WCPO media partner, the Journal-News.