Driver in fatal drunken driving crash pleads guilty

An Augusta man whose drunken driving crash killed a woman and cost him both of his legs pleaded guilty to criminal charges Wednesday.

Michael L. Johnston, 44, had six prior arrests for driving under the influence before the March 4, 2013, crash on Morningside Drive that killed 41-year-old Kathleen Gilmer.

Johnston’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was .203, more than double the level at which a driver is presumed to be too intoxicated to drive. He was driving so fast when he hit a tree that Gilmer, who was wearing a seat belt, was partially ejected from the vehicle, said Assistant District Attorney Rex Myers. The vehicle was on fire when emergency personnel arrived to find Gilmer dead and Johnston severely injured, Myers said.

Wednesday, Johnston pleaded guilty in Richmond County Superior Court to vehicular homicide, driving on a suspended license, weaving, driving too fast for conditions and possession of an open container of an alcoholic beverage.

Gale Belcher told the judge she had waited a very long time for Johnston to take responsibility for her daughter’s death. She was a very loving person, Belcher said of her daughter, and she left behind three children.

“So many lives have been changed forever,” Belcher said.

Defense attorney Rahmaan Bowick of the public defender’s office told the judge that Johnston has always wanted to take responsibility for the fatal crash. And Johnston wants his story to make a difference in other’s people lives. He has already spoken with the Richmond County accountability court, an alternative to traditional punishment for DUI, Bowick said.

“This is (a) losing situation for everyone,” Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said.

He sentenced Johnston to six years in prison followed by four years probation, and imposed a $1,000 fine. Johnston has until May 23 to report to the jail.

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