BRYAN CO., GA (WTOC) - A Louisiana truck driver charged in a fiery crash along Interstate 16 that killed five nursing students last year pleaded guilty to all nine charges, Thursday morning in court.
John Wayne Johnson was sentenced to 10 years total: five years to serve in prison and five years on probation.
A hearing for Johnson took place in Bryan County Superior Court. The 56-year-old truck driver from Shreveport, Louisiana, was indicted last month by a grand jury on criminal charges. Johnson was charged with five counts of first degree vehicular homicide, serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, failure to exercise due care and following too closely.
The charges stem from an April 2015 crash on I-16 just west of Savannah that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students. Johnson was behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer that slammed into stop-and-go traffic that was stalled by another unrelated wreck nearby.
We caught up with the prosecuting district attorney, who says the 10-year sentence was determined following months of discussion with the defense and with the victims' families, some of whom were present for the sentencing.
Johnson's lawyer, Ed Tolley, highlighted Johnson's lengthy service background with the Marines - 21 years total until his retirement from the Corps.
Tolley also pointed to Johnson's family, children and grandchildren and his siblings, and that being close to them has made dealing with the loss of life he caused particularly difficult. Tolley finished by talking about his client's cooperation with the investigation.
"He never attempted to shift the blame to anybody but himself. He has from day one, literally, taken full responsibility. In the many civil suits that were filed, he has admitted liability, and today before you, Your Honor, he has admitted liability," he said.
The judge asked Johnson in court if he could describe what exactly happened.
Johnson: "That's what bugs me, why? Why am I hitting my brake, why am I not stopping? That's what I'm trying to figure. Why am I still approaching this stopped traffic? That's what I was hoping the investigation would show; something came about, what was there, what happened."
Judge Robert Russell: "You just can't explain it?"
John Wayne Johnson "No sir."
Judge Robert Russell "I'm sorry."
Tolley read out Johnson's statement, saying, 'I want the families to know that I remember their losses every single day. I don't know how to comfort anyone in a loss of their child. I love my children. I will not wish that loss on anyone.'
For the parents of Caitlyn Baggett and Catherine Pittman, two of the five nursing students killed in the crash Johnson admitted to causing, the guilty plea wasn't a surprise as they sat in listening to the statements.
"I've lost my daughter. Never to hear her say, 'I love you mommy' again. Never see her again. As a mother, any of you who are parents, my soul has been ripped out of my body. And you did it, you can't understand, you can't remember how you did it? Shame on you," said Sherrin Pittman, Catherine Baggett's mother.
"I'm satisfied that he went ahead and pleaded guilty on it, but as the sentence was handed down, we disagree with the time on it, but we will accept what the judge has offered. Mr. Johnson is going to have to live with this for the rest of his life. He's gonna have to remember that he has cut lives short on five girls," said Richard Baggett, Baggett's father.
Johnson will be held in the Bryan County Jail for a few days, until the state can determine what facility he will ultimately serve his sentence in.