HILLSBOROUGH — A Tennessee truck driver was sentenced to nearly 12 years Monday for a fatal 2011 wreck on Interstate 40 in Orange County that killed three people.
Ronald Eugene Graybeal, 53, of Newport, Tenn., was originally charged with three counts of felony death by vehicle, driving while impaired, possession of marijuana and methadone, two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident.
He waived a jury trial and instead accepted a plea bargain to three counts of involuntary manslaughter. He also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons sentenced him to a maximum of 11 years and 140 days in prison.
Graybeal, who has been in jail since shortly after the June 30, 2011, wreck, spoke to the victims’ families before being sentenced.
“My heart goes out to you. I just want to apologize to you. I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said. “I will carry this for the rest of my life.”
Graybeal’s tractor-trailer was traveling west on I-40 around 3 p.m. when he met a traffic jam just past the U.S. 15-501 exit, where the highway narrows from three lanes to two.
Several cars in the middle lane had just started moving when Graybeal’s rig slammed into the back of a Ford F-150 pickup truck at 66 to 67 mph, Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman said. The impact wrapped the pickup around the front of the rig and pushed it into a 2008 Chevrolet Equinox. The tractor-trailer, pushing the truck, then rammed a Nissan Maxima, which burst into flames, and a 20-foot box truck.
Accident reconstruction experts estimate Graybeal did not apply the brake until he hit the cars or just a second before. The accident killed three drivers: John Paul Llanio, 38, of Kannapolis; Barbara Boda Caldwell, 64, of Mebane; and Gary DeWayne Smith, 45, of Burlington.
The box-truck driver, Reginald Keith Thompson, 49, of Greensboro, was treated for his injuries.
Defense attorney Julian Mack said they don’t agree Graybeal was impaired. N.C. Highway Patrol troopers found a bottle of the prescription painkiller methodone in his truck, in addition to four marijuana cigarette butts. A Highway Patrol drug expert reportedly concluded from roadside tests that Graybeal was impaired three hours after the wreck. A blood toxicology test also supported that conclusion.
Mack said Graybeal was taking the methodone for back pain as necessary. Experienced Orange County Emergency Medical Service workers did not think he was impaired, Mack said.
Six of the roughly two dozen family members representing the victims spoke at the hearing.
Caldwell was a loving mother and wife, with a bubbly spirit and willingness to help a neighbor in need, her grandson Daniel Sekeras said. She and her husband Richard were married for 47 years and were planning a 50th anniversary trip to Hawaii when she died, he said. Smith was and still is a vital part of his family and community, his wife and sons said.
Olivia Llanio, 14, said her dad “was a really cool person,” who meant more to her and others than she realized. He won’t be at her graduation or her wedding day, she said.
“Everything has to happen for a reason,” Llanio said. “He was a really great person that I’m really glad I got 12 years with, and it’s my job to help everyone ... remember him, because that’s what I can do.”