GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly 14 months after a driver slammed into the back of a stopped car, killing a young woman and baby, prosecutors have charged him with a misdemeanor count.
The moving violation causing death charge carries up to one year in jail and a mandatory one-year license suspension — not punishment enough in the minds of the victims’ tight-knit family.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Bill Baker, who lost his daughter, Samantha, and granddaughter, Annalee, in the crash.
“It might have been an accident, but, still, there’s got to be some consequences. Some sort of justice for what was done.”
On Jan. 6, 2019, several members of the Baker family were returning home from church, heading eastbound on M-46 northeast of Howard City.
They were one mile from home when the crash happened.
According to Michigan State Police, the Baker car was stopped, waiting to turn north onto North Amble Road when a car driven by Brian Wayne Johnson, 27, of Cedar Springs, rear-ended the Bakers. It pushed their car into the westbound lane and the path of an oncoming vehicle.
Johnson told a trooper on the scene that he tried to swerve to avoid the car but hit it in the rear passenger side.
According to the police report, he also claimed he did not see brake lights.
The crash killed 18-year-old Samantha Baker and her 9-month-old niece, Annalee Baker.
“It feels like yesterday,” said Bill Baker.
“Every day, any time of the day, there’s no telling when, it just all of a sudden kicks you.”
Baker described his daughter, Samantha, as her own person, unafraid to be herself no matter the circumstances.
“She had her own style. Made friends with anybody out there. Somebody didn’t have a friend, she’d friend them.”
He also said that if someone were getting picked on, Samantha would try to help the person by drawing the bully’s attention to her.
“She’d act all kooky and stuff. She didn’t care what people thought about her. She was just going to be her.”
Annalee Baker, Bill and Michelle Baker’s first granddaughter, was just starting to stand up.
“She loved to giggle and play in the snow.”
Bill Baker wishes the justice system would stand for them too. The family is disappointed by the misdemeanor charge and the nearly 14 months it took to file it.
The case was delayed after the Montcalm County prosecutor sought an outside prosecutor because an employee in their office was distantly related to one of the families involved in the crash.
But when the case got to the attorney general’s office, which is responsible for assigning cases to special prosecutors, it somehow got lost or overlooked for months.
Ultimately, the collision was assigned to Kent County, which filed the misdemeanor charge against Johnson in December 2019.
Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker told News 8 that, under state law, the misdemeanor was the only appropriate charge.
Becker says the evidence showed Johnson was not excessively speeding, had no alcohol nor drugs in his system, and was not texting or talking on the phone at the time of the crash.
“To charge something more than (the misdemeanor), we need some kind of recklessness, and that just was not present in this case according to the investigation,” Becker said in an interview at his office Friday.
“Any driver has probably blown a red light, blown a stop sign, maybe turned and suddenly there’s a car right there that you just didn’t see for some reason. It’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ type stuff. That’s a moving violation. There’s a penalty for it, but you weren’t going 100 miles an hour in a 40 miles per hour zone. You weren’t driving recklessly.”
Johnson’s defense attorney, Keary Sawyer, called the crash a “tragedy of extreme proportions,” but stressed that it was an “accident.”
“My client wasn’t speeding, wasn’t drinking, no drugs involved, no cell phone involved,” said Sawyer from his northeast Grand Rapids office. “To charge someone with a crime because they’re involved in an accident, I don’t think is always appropriate.”
Sawyer also said he’s waiting for measurements from the scene of the crash so his accident reconstructionist can confirm the victims’ car was indeed stopped with its turn signal on at the time of the crash.
Sawyer said that if a “sudden emergency” caused Johnson to rear-end the Bakers, his client would have a legitimate defense.
“We don’t know because (the victims’) vehicle did not have a crash data recorder in it, which would otherwise give us exact information.”
Witnesses told police the Baker’s car was clearly stopped, waiting to turn left.
“The thing is that’s a flat stretch. It’s not like it’s hilly,” said Bill Baker. “It’s not like it was hard to see… You hit somebody, you’re not paying attention.”
While Michigan State Police’ Computer Crimes Unit found no evidence of texts or calls on Johnson’s phone at the time of the crash, Johnson himself made a point to tell troopers on the scene that his passenger was using (Johnson’s) phone when the crash happened.
“Johnson provided me his cellphone but said his friend was using it in the vehicle,” wrote a trooper in his report.
However, when the troopers interviewed the passenger, he said he had never used Johnson’s phone.
“(The passenger) advised he did not know anything about how the accident happened as he was looking down at his (own) phone….. He advised he was on his (own) phone and denied ever using Brian Johnson’s phone. I questioned if Brian was on his phone at the time of the accident, and (the passenger) stated he did not know.”
Later, in a deposition for a civil suit the Baker family filed against Johnson, Johnson said he didn’t remember anything from the crash, including telling troopers that the passenger was using (Johnson’s) phone.
However, he did tell attorneys during the deposition that the young men were using Johnson’s phone to play music in the car.
“He wanted to play music, so I gave him my phone,” Johnson said in the deposition. “He started it when we left his house.”
Johnson also said he had no explanation for why he hit the Baker’s car.
Michigan State Police say the amount of information they can extract from a cell phone varies depending on the type of phone and what apps the person was utilizing.
“Also, even if the phone may log some of that information, due to how phones work, it may not stay on the phone long enough for us to get it,” wrote Lt. Aric Dowling, in an email exchange with News 8.
Michigan State Police say they looked at the phone activity, including apps, and no activity was shown around the time of the crash.
Bill Baker wonders why Johnson felt the need to tell troopers his passenger was using his phone.
“The thing is how many 20-somethings are texting or on a texting app as opposed to being on Snapchat, Instagram or something like that,” he said. “It’s not like they’re on a text or a call. They’re on other apps…. He had to be doing something. It was a bright red car.”
Johnson’s driving history shows one prior crash, in which there were no injuries.
In that crash, he was cited for failing to stop within an assured clear distance.
Johnson is scheduled to be in court on April 3 to face the misdemeanor charge.