GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The St. Joseph County sheriff crawled over the center console into the passenger’s seat and then denied being the driver of his SUV after a suspected drunken driving crash in February, Michigan State Police reports say.
The crash happened around 2:20 a.m. Feb. 26 on US-131 south of Schoolcraft. Authorities say Mark Lillywhite, 47, of Three Rivers, rear-ended another car, shoving both vehicles off the road and causing the other car to roll. No one was seriously hurt.
Kalamazoo County sheriff’s deputies were the first officers on the scene but they quickly called in MSP.
“(Deputies) requested that MSP take over the case due to a possible conflict of interest, as Mark Lillywhite was the sheriff of St. Joseph County, and they both knew Lillywhite,” police reports obtained by News 8 Wednesday say in part.
Lillywhite was sitting in the passenger’s seat of his SUV when troopers arrived. One trooper wrote in his report that Lillywhite “denied being the driver” but wouldn’t say who might have been driving.
A firefighter who was first on the scene told a trooper that Lillywhite was in the driver’s seat when he arrived.
“(The firefighter) then watched Lillywhite crawl across the center console to the front passenger seat and remain there until my arrival on scene,” the trooper wrote. “(The firefighter) confirmed he did not see anyone else near Lillywhite’s car, and did not see anyone flee the scene.”
Lillywhite also “refused to give any information pertaining to the crash,” the report said.
Asked about what happened, Lillywhite told a trooper, “I’m just gonna tell ya, I’m not sure what happened and, it is what it is.” Pressed for information, Lillywhite replied, “I don’t know, all I know is I went in the ditch and I don’t got no clue.”
“I then asked Lillywhite who was driving the vehicle he was in and he said, ‘I have no idea,'” a trooper wrote. “I again asked who was driving the vehicle and Lillywhite stated, ‘To be honest with you, bad, bad, bad, but no, I don’t.'”
Three witnesses told troopers that Lillywhite was the only person in the car.
DATA: NEARLY 100 MPH BEFORE CRASH
Lillywhite and the other car were headed south on US-131 near West YZ Avenue in Schoolcraft Township before the crash.
Data pulled from Lillywhite’s SUV shows his speed ranged between 96 and 99 mph in the five seconds before the crash and that he never hit the brakes. MSP said the speedometer was stuck at 100 mph when the SUV was inspected later.
The people in the car that was rear-ended told troopers they were going between 55 and 60 mph, and the data from their car had them at 55 mph in the five seconds before the crash.
The speed limit on US-131, which is a surface street in the stretch where the crash happened, is 55 mph.
The victims said they didn’t see any headlights behind them before being hit. Another witness, who knew the victims and was in a car ahead of them, said he didn’t see any headlights behind the victims’ car, either.
“(The witness) saw an SUV nearly hit him on the right side of his vehicle and run off the roadway to the right into the ditch,” the police report reads. “(The witness) advised he did not lose sight of the SUV at any point after it passed him, and observed Lillywhite in the back seat of the vehicle. (The witness) stated it appeared that Lillywhite was not wearing his seatbelt and was thrown into the rear of the vehicle. (The witness) did not observe anyone else inside the vehicle, and did not see anyone run from the vehicle.”
The witness went to check on Lilllywhite and said the sheriff “continually repeated, ‘I know I’m in trouble,'” a trooper wrote.
A witness in a fourth vehicle who was headed north on US-131 when he saw the crash happen agreed he didn’t immediately see Lillywhite’s car because the headlights were off.
MSP’s investigation of Lillywhite’s SUV could not determine whether the headlights were working, explaining that its LED bulbs made it impossible to confirm because there is no filament.
The investigation and vehicle data did confirm Lillywhite wasn’t wearing his seat belt when the crash happened. The driver’s side air bag was the only one that was deployed.
The people in the car that was rear-ended were wearing their seat belts.
TROOPER: LILLYWHITE STAGGERED AND SLURRED SPEECH
A trooper wrote that as soon as he opened the door of Lillywhite’s SUV, he “immediately smelled the odor (redacted) and alcohol.” Lillywhite had a hard time getting out of the SUV and staggered once on his feet, the trooper wrote, adding that his speech was slurred and his eyes bloodshot.
“A majority of his statements were incoherent,” the trooper wrote. “Throughout my contact with Lillywhite he continued to repeat questions after I had already answered them. He would advise that he understood my answer, only to repeat the same question shortly after.”
Another trooper wrote that Lillywhite refused to undergo a field sobriety test or take a roadside breath test, again claiming he wasn’t the driver, so he was arrested. He was taken to the hospital to have his blood drawn shortly before 5 a.m.
Lillywhite told troopers there were three guns in the SUV, which was registered to the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Office and which the MSP reports indicate was his duty vehicle. Troopers found a loaded pistol in the center console and another pistol and a rifle, as well as ammunition, in the trunk. Lillywhite wasn’t carrying any guns on his body.
Lillywhite was jailed on charges of or drunken driving and being in possession of a weapon while under the influence and released later the same day.
MSP confirmed to News 8 Wednesday that it was still awaiting the blood test results.