GALLIPOLIS — In what has been described as part of a growing trend in narcotic-related OVI crimes, a Crown City man was sentenced, Monday, to eight years in a state facility with a lifetime license suspension for the second-degree felony of vehicular homicide which ultimately resulted in the death of Gallipolis resident, Robert Baxter, 66.
“On August 15, 2018, my world collapsed,” said Kathy Baxter, Robert’s sister-in-law, as she read a statement written by Robert’s daughter, Caroline Baxter, during 38-year-old Matthew Preston’s sentencing in the Gallia Court of Common Pleas. “I don’t think I’ve been able to breathe right ever since. Our home feels empty without him…I’ve watched my mom suffer and it hurts even more. I’ve seen my grandparents grieve, which no parent should have to do for their child…I’m heartbroken. I’ll never get to have a father-daughter dance at my wedding. I would give anything so that my future children could meet him.”
Several statements followed from family members, one saying that a “five-gallon bucket could not hold all the tears” that had been shed since Robert’s death.
“No punishment will ever make our lives whole again or bring Bobby back to us, but we ask the court impose the maximum sentence allowed by law,” read Kathy from a statement written by Robert’s wife, Patricia Baxter. “We hope that during this time Mr. Preston will take full advantage of every opportunity to get himself and his life straightened up and become a productive member of society…Memories are all I have left of the life I once knew because of your choice (to Preston) to drive that August afternoon. I lost my husband, my best friend of 45 years and the love of my life.”
Gallipolis Municipal complaint records say that Preston “was traveling westbound on State Route 588 in the area of milepost 6 (Aug. 15, 2018, afternoon of Gallia County). At this location, Preston struck Robert Baxter (Jr.) as Baxter was traveling on a motorcycle eastbound on State Route 588. At the time of the collision, Preston was traveling in the eastbound lane of State Route 588 while attempting to pass a truck on a double yellow line…Due to the impact of the collision, Robert Baxter suffered fatal injuries. (Troopers) were on scene and while conversing with Preston observed signs of obvious impairment. At the request of (the trooper), Preston performed standard field sobriety testing and was determined to be impaired. (Troopers) arrested Preston for OVI.” The collision happened at roughly 12:37 p.m.
According to case information, Preston reportedly had nine different chemical substances in his body at the time of the collision. Ohio State Highway Patrol officials say that three of those substances were in high enough measurements in Preston’s system to cause his impairment while driving. The highest three were heroin, amphetamine and methamphetamine. The others included codeine, morphine, fentanyl, norfentanyl, clonazepam and amino-clonazepam. Law enforcement says drugs are commonly cut with others, so the smaller amounts might have been part of a consumed mixture.
Preston had two previous encounters with law enforcement within a 48-hour period, starting Tuesday, August 14, 2018. One encounter was reported to occur at a Rio Grande business at roughly 3:14 p.m. where he was discovered unresponsive with keys in the ignition of a running vehicle. He was reportedly revived with five doses of Narcan. The second was reported at a business on Jackson Pike with Preston at approximately 11:39 p.m., the same Tuesday evening. He was arrested for OVI, after going through a field sobriety test, taken back to the Ohio State Highway Patrol post and processed for the reported incident. Preston was released into the care of an individual who had the situation explained to him, that Preston was still impaired, and who signed a release form to take Preston into their custody and care. Preston was released around 1:30 a.m. in the morning, August 15, 2018. The fatality which resulted in Baxter’s death happened around 12:37 p.m., that afternoon.
Statements were given by Preston’s parents, daughter and himself. They apologized to Robert’s family for what had happened and said they wished it was something that had never occurred. They said Preston had struggled most of his adult life with pain and addiction due to a back injury that had occurred in his early 20s that disallowed him from continuing his last year of college, although it did not excuse what had happened to Robert.
“Clearly, my drug addiction has led me down some very dark paths in the past,” said Preston. “I do know that my actions and decisions ended up causing (Robert’s) death. For that reason, I will always feel the guilt. I realize that by never intending to hurt anyone it does not absolve me of my responsibilities or my actions and bad decisions. I found it very difficult these days leading up to this hearing to find the right words to describe how sorry I am to the Baxter family.”
Gallia Common Pleas Judge Margaret Evans said that initial reports taken by OSHP troopers interacting with Preston at the scene of the crash indicated that he wished he was able to trade places with Robert at the time. She eventually sentenced Preston to the full eight years allowed by law for his crime as asked by the Baxter family.
Preston had over a decade of encounters with law enforcement and court officials for various drug issues. OVI charges in Ohio are typically considered misdemeanors. An OVI charge becomes a felony when a suspect has three or more previous OVI convictions within a period of 10 years, according to 4511.19 of the Ohio Revised Code. According to Gallipolis Municipal Court online records, Preston had no previous OVI charges.
Preston also was previously charged with two first-degree misdemeanor OVI counts and one second-degree misdemeanor possession of a drug abuse instrument as well as a minor misdemeanor for marijuana paraphernalia. He pleaded guilty to one OVI charge and one for possession of a drug abuse instrument in the Gallipolis Municipal Court. The other charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to a mandatory fine of $375, a mandatory one-year license suspension, a maximum of 180 days in jail and credited with 156 already served because Preston never posted bond. His sentence will run concurrent with what was declared in Gallia Common Pleas as per the Ohio Revised Code. For the drug abuse instrument charge, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which he was credited with 90, having already served them.
“Ours was a call of an overdose,” said Rio Grande Police Chief Josh Davies previously in August 2018 of Preston’s first encounter with law enforcement over the 48 hour period before Baxter’s death. “He was unresponsive. We were able to get him responsive and he was transported by squad to the hospital. We did our criminal charges and he had to be treated so there was nothing else we could do because he had to be treated by the hospital. Afterwards, I conversed with the (then Gallipolis City Solicitor Adam Salisbury) regarding charges and he recommended we charge him (Preston) with OVI because he was behind the wheel of the vehicle with the keys in the ignition, the engine running and he was unresponsive.”
Preston was at the hospital before Rio officers conversed with the solicitor about an OVI charge, said Davies.
“There’s ways (charges can be filed),” said Davies. “Obviously, (Preston was out of Rio Grande jurisdiction at the time he was taken to Holzer Medical Center). Usually, a summons or criminal complaint will be filed (with the courts), which is just what we did. We filed a complaint against (Preston). At that time, once he’s taken by the hospital, we don’t know the extent of what’s going to happen…We have to see what happens (whether an individual survives an overdose). It’s kind of a case by case basis on what the situation is. In an overdose, you may have no charges on him whatsoever.”
In an attempt to follow procedure, Davies said Rio Grande police went to converse with the solicitor for legal counsel to make certain what was the best course of action to take next. A warrant was not issued until after the conversation with the solicitor.
According to an earlier conversation the same August with Ohio State Highway Patrol Commander Lt. Barry Call, troopers had another incident at a gas station on Jackson Pike with Preston at approximately 11:30 p.m., the same Tuesday evening. He was arrested for OVI, after going through a field sobriety test, taken back to the post and processed for the reported incident. Preston was released into the care of an individual who had the situation explained to him, that Preston was still impaired, and who signed a release form to take Preston into his custody and care. Preston was released around 1:30 a.m. in the morning, Wednesday. The fatality which resulted in Baxter’s death happened around 12:37 p.m., that afternoon.
“One of (law enforcement) processes is allowing an impaired driver to get a ride (when released),” said Call previously.
Of impaired drivers picked up by OSHP in 2018, about 47 percent of them were found to be under the influence of narcotics and law enforcement expects that number will grow. Call said the post had roughly 350 OVI arrests throughout Gallia and Meigs County. The commander said troopers had followed protocol while handling Preston’s case and that currently no changes in policy were in motion with an impaired driver being released into the care of a sober individual.
“As far as our policy and protocol, it hasn’t changed,” said Call after the sentencing. “It’s kind of a freaky instance (the Preston case), if you will…As we spoke before, several months ago, we (Rio Grande police and troopers) followed protocol…It had an effect on my guys at the post because we’re out there to curb behavior.”
“Unfortunately in this case, we are stuck with the maximum sentence of eight years,” said Gallia Prosecutor Jason Holdren. “So, justice in a sense was served that he received the maximum sentence that we asked for, argued for, fought for. That doesn’t bring back Mr. Baxter…On a prior date, I went to Columbus to meet with my (State Representative) Ryan Smith, and we spent significant time on this case to express the need that we have to increase these penalties (allowed by law). Because, as Lt. Call has indicated, the cases that we’re seeing are not just alcohol-impaired but drug-impaired. Folks are being reckless…I believe those penalties need enhanced…I’m not happy with the eight years. I’m happy we received the maximum sentence. It doesn’t feel like justice with that amount of time.”
Preston could have received a two-year minimum sentence.
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.