Police say Woodmore bus driver was doing 50 mph in a 30 mph zone [video]

Johnthony Walker appears in court for his preliminary hearing.
Johnthony Walker appears in court for his preliminary hearing.
photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/15/16. Media, family, friends and attorneys fill the courtroom as Johnthony Walker, the driver involved in the November 21, 2016 school bus crash that sent 31 of the 37 students on board to the hospital resulting in six fatalities, appears before Judge Lila Statom in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on December 15, 2016 for charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Walkerճ case was bound over to the grand jury after an hour and a half of testimony from two Chattanooga Police Department officers.

The 24-year-old bus driver arrested in connection with the Woodmore Elementary School crash that killed six children was driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, a police officer testified Thursday in Hamilton County General Sessions Court.

Johnthony Walker was traveling between 48 and 52 mph and never braked while overcorrecting the course of the bus Nov. 21 on Talley Road, Chattanooga officer Joe Warren said.

Walker also had a cellphone out in the bus before the crash, Warren said. But no specific testimony surfaced Thursday about when or how Walker used it.

After listening to an hour and a half of testimony, Judge Lila Statom found enough probable cause to send Walker's vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving charges to the grand jury. Afterward, Walker's attorney, Amanda Dunn, declined to comment.

Warren said his team responded to 318 Talley Road around 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 and started studying tire marks to reconstruct what happened. Police said Walker lost control while speeding and overcorrected bus No. 366, eventually smashing into a mailbox, a utility pole and a tree. On scene, Warren suspected "right off the bat" that speed was a factor, he said.

Warren transported Walker to the police station to separate the 24-year-old from grieving family and community members at the scene, he said. Walker was formally arrested at 9:51 p.m., he said.

Dunn questioned whether Warren had justified the arrest with incomplete evidence that investigators gathered on a chaotic scene as several agencies tried to piece together what happened.

Warren answered that tire marks were a reliable indicator.

"If that's all I had going to trial, I'd still be comfortable with it," he said.

In addition to tire marks, attorneys debated the issue of video footage.

Dunn said Walker tried to pull two children from the back of the vehicle after the crash. The same video footage, she said, showed the 24-year-old driver with his phone out while the bus was stationary.

He put it down when the children got on board, she said. Warren countered that the phone just went out of view.

While making her decision, Statom asked Dunn and Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston if they would like to make any further arguments. Pinkston said testimony showed Walker was operating a vehicle during a wreck that killed six children, drawing tears from the gallery.

Dunn pointed out the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to finish its investigation and that very little proof suggests Walker was acting with disregard for life.

"There's still a whole lot we don't know," Dunn said.

Statom disagreed, saying there was a "conscious disregard" for the risk in this case, and she bound Walker's five counts of vehicular homicide, one count of reckless endangerment and one count of reckless driving to the grand jury. She did not change the bond, meaning Walker will remain in custody pending the grand jury's decision on whether to return an indictment.

If Walker is indicted, his case will proceed to Hamilton County Criminal Court.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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