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Driver charged in fatal Florida bus crash has a history of dangerous driving

The Florida Highway Patrol says the 41-year-old drove his pickup into the center line on a two-lane road and sideswiped a bus full of farmworkers.
Farmworker Bus-Accident-Florida Truck Pic
Posted at 5:08 PM, May 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 17:08:42-04

A man with a long record of dangerous driving pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to driving under the influence-manslaughter in the deaths of eight Mexican farmworkers whose bus was sideswiped by his pickup truck in central Florida. Dozens more were injured.

Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, remains jailed without bond for Tuesday's crash in which the Florida Highway Patrol says he drove his 2001 Ford pickup into the center line on a two-lane road and sideswiped a farmworker bus, causing it to veer off the road, strike a tree and flip over.

He told a judge by teleconference from jail Wednesday that he's a self-employed painter and drywall installer with $700 in the bank, no other assets and no dependents. Howard's head was bandaged and he wore a protective gown typically given to inmates on suicide watch.

The judge denied bond, appointed a public defender and set his next court appearance for next month.

According to his arrest report, troopers say Howard had bloodshot and watery eyes and slurred speech after the crash, which he said he didn't remember.

Bryan Maclean Howard.jpg
Mugshot of Bryan Maclean Howard

He told an FHP investigator that he had crashed his mother's car into a tree a few days earlier while avoiding an animal and that on Monday night, he had smoked marijuana oil and took his prescribed medications before bed: two anti-seizure drugs and another for high blood pressure. He woke up about five hours later and was driving to a methadone clinic where he receives daily medication for chipped vertebrae, he said.

Howard then failed several sobriety tests and was arrested, the FHP said.

Howard's parents did not immediately respond to a Wednesday phone message seeking comment, and the Marion County public defender's office declined to comment.

Marion County court records show Howard has had at least three crashes and numerous traffic tickets dating back to 2006, including one citation for crossing the center line. His license has been suspended at least three times, the latest in 2021 for getting too many citations within a year. In 2013, he was convicted of grand theft. A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

A bus involved in a fatal two-vehicle crash in Marion County, Florida on May 14, 2024.

U.S. News

8 killed, dozens injured after bus carrying farm workers crashes in Florida

Taylor O'Bier
11:27 AM, May 14, 2024

Meanwhile, Mexico's consulate was working Wednesday to support the seasonal farmworkers, who had been on their way to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon when the accident happened at about 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, about 80 miles north of Orlando.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 Mexican farmworkers were on the bus, hired by a Mexican American farmer to work on the watermelon farm under H-2A visas. Florida farms use about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

A Mexican government statement later Wednesday said that six of the injured are in serious condition and three others are in critical condition.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to provide support at the AdventHealth Ocala hospital, where many of the injured were taken.

Six of the dead have been identified: Evarado Ventura Hernandez, 30; Cristian Salazar Villeda, 24; Alfredo Tovar Sanchez, 20; Isaias Miranda Pascal, 21; Jose Heriberto Fraga Acosta, 27; and Manuel Perez Rios, 46.

The cofounder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Lucas Benitez, said consular officials told them the farmworkers who died were from at least five different states in Mexico.

Andres Sequera, a director of mission and ministry for AdventHealth hospitals, said chaplains were visiting the injured workers, and they "were in good spirits for what they have been through."

"We were able to provide support, presence, prayer when it was asked of us," Sequera told reporters.

Cannon Farms, a family-owned operation that sends melons to grocery stores across the U.S. and Canada, said it would stay closed through Wednesday.

"Thank you to all who have reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers" for the people hurt in the crash, Cannon Farms said in a Facebook post that described the accident as happening at the Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the crash. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to watermelon fields and then operate harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

A Labor Department document shows Olvera also recently applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month, again at a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Getting to and from the fields can be hazardous: Federal statistics show vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of 171 fatalities.

It was not immediately known if Olvera's vehicle, which the highway patrol described as a "retired" school bus, had seat belts.

The Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. Florida law already requires seat belts for farmworker transport using smaller vehicles, weighing less than 10,000 pounds. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association has been opposed to the new federal seat belt requirement, calling it "impractical."

Two advocacy groups called for stricter laws and enforcement to protect farmworkers, while a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $20,000 of a $50,000 goal by Tuesday night.

"Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it's important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times," the post said.

Benitez said transportation laws for farmworkers are often unenforced.

"While accidents will happen, protecting workers while transporting them with mandatory and enforceable safety provisions, like seat belts and safety inspections, can reduce injuries and deaths," he said.