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Driver pleads guilty in fatal Volcano Park crash

Updated: 
November 2, 2017 - 10:59am

HONOLULU — The driver of a pickup truck that crashed in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, killing one of the truck’s passengers, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to involuntary manslaughter.

Kenneth J. Ewing, 44, of Pahoa, faces a maximum eight-year prison term at sentencing in February. He also faces a maximum one-year jail term for injuring another passenger in the crash, but that term likely will run at the same time as the one for involuntary manslaughter. In addition, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Ayabe said the government will ask for restitution.

John A. Becker, 48, died in the May 28 crash on Highway 11 near mile marker 33.

Ewing said, “I was drinking with two of my friends (and) driving.”

“I drove and got in an accident,” he said.

The National Park Service says Ewing, Becker and a 53-year-old man were thrown onto the roadway after their pickup truck failed to negotiate a curve and rolled over. A park ranger who arrived on the scene said the truck was resting on the driver’s side, Becker was pinned under the vehicle and passers-by told him they pulled the other passenger out from under the vehicle. Ewing was walking around.

The Park Service said the ranger also found beer bottles and two opened bottles of vodka, one nearly empty, at the scene and noticed an odor of alcohol on all three of the pickup’s occupants.

Ayabe told U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright on Tuesday that a sample of Ewing’s blood drawn at Hilo Medical Center more than three hours after the crash contained a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.277 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. The legal threshold for drunken driving is 0.08. She said that about 20 minutes before the crash, another motorist had called 911 to report that a white Toyota truck was speeding and swerving all over the road.

Ewing said he believes he was driving 55 mph in a 45 mph zone.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin S.C. Chang granted Ewing’s request Friday to allow him to return to Pahoa into the custody of his wife. Ewing, however, remained at Sand Island Treatment Center to address his alcohol addiction.

Ayabe said the government opposed and continues to oppose releasing Ewing to his wife because she was at home, where her husband and his two passengers started drinking on May 28. She said Ewing’s wife then handed Ewing the keys to the pickup truck, which is registered in her name, even though she knew he didn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Ewing’s lawyer, First Assistant Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert, told Seabright that the surviving passenger confirms Ewing’s claim that he didn’t drink much before leaving his home and didn’t want to drive but did so because his friends wanted to go home. He said it was only after the three men left the house that he started drinking heavily after stopping at a store to purchase alcohol.

Seabright told Ewing that the smart thing for him to do is to remain at Sand Island Treatment Center. He told Ewing that for the safety of the community, he is not inclined to allow him to return to Hawaii island until he hears about his progress in treatment.

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