Driver charged in 2018 Johnston Co. crash that left 4 dead changes plea, avoids prison time

Wednesday, July 12, 2023
Victim families react to fatal crash sentencing
EMBED <>More Videos

Five years after a fiery crash on I-40 in Johnston County, the driver blamed for the crash changed his plea just before his trial was to begin.

SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WTVD) -- Five years after a fiery chain-reaction crash on Interstate 40 in Johnston County that left four people dead, the driver blamed for the crash changed his plea just before his trial was to begin.

In doing so, he avoided an active prison sentence, a development that left the families of victims stunned and in disbelief.

Rosemary Peters has been watching the calendar for five years. She was hoping for a date with justice. On Monday, her hopes were shattered when a Johnston County Superior Court Judge made what she considers a disappointing decision.

"Not quite the closure that we wanted. We don't get it," said Peters outside her Youngsville home. "It was a surprise. Right before we went into the courtroom, he pulled us into a room and we had a meeting, and he told us, then that it's highly, highly, highly unlikely that he would get any jail time at all," Peters recalled.

The case dates to Aug. 29, 2018. State troopers said William Van O'Neal, of Garner, was driving a flatbed truck hauling lumber that day and didn't slow down for traffic that had stopped because of another crash.

He wasn't impaired, he wasn't speeding; he just didn't slow down for stopped traffic ahead of him, troopers said.

He hit several cars and a few of them caught fire. A total of 10 cars were involved in the crash. Two of them caught on fire.

Michael Peters was on his way to Wrightsville Beach with his wife, Rosemary, when he became one of four people to die in the chain-reaction crash.
Courtesy of Rosemary Peters

Rosemary's husband, 64-year-old husband, Michael Peters, was one of the four people killed, along with Sherry Allen, 69, of Four Oaks, and McRoy Skipper Jr., 74, and his wife, Josephine Skipper, 73, of Georgetown, South Carolina. Several others were injured.

After the crash, O'Neal was indicted on four counts of involuntary manslaughter, and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

The case was called for trial Monday when O'Neal changed his plea to guilty after hearing victim impact statements.

ALSO SEE: 911 calls released in deadly I-40 fiery crash

Victims and their family members requested that the judge impose an active sentence for O'Neal, but he was sentenced to six consecutive suspended sentences ranging from 15 to 33 months and was placed on supervised probation for 36 months.

"He was never arrested. He was never put in handcuffs. He was never. I mean, the appearances before the court were just continuances," Rosemary Peters said. "For fact, almost five years, how could that be?"

As a condition of his probation, O'Neal was ordered not to operate a motor vehicle under any circumstances.

On Tuesday, the Johnston County District Attorney's Office said it hopes the conclusion of the case can bring a sense of relief to the victims and their families.

"We will continue to aggressively prosecute those individuals who commit criminal acts on our highways that put the safety of all our citizens in jeopardy," Assistant District Attorney Paul Jackson said.

Rosemary Peters didn't see it that way.

"He got nothing -- just 36 months' probation," she said. "That's it. Nothing else, nothing."

Still grieving, Peters shared her memory of the day in court Monday, the impact statement she made painting the picture of the day; she and her late husband were traveling to Wrightsville Beach.

"Nobody could have told me when we left home that I would return back home alone," she reflected.

Now new grief and justice denied as she continues on her journey of healing.