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Bond reduced to $75,000 for wrong-way driver accused of killing coach
VIENNA, Mo. (June 11, 2009) — The man accused of killing former Waynesville High School head baseball coach Don Nelson will be allowed out of the Pulaski County Jail, but only if he can come up with $75,000 in cash, property or surety via a bail bondsman.

In a special bail hearing Thursday afternoon in Vienna, Maries County Associate Circuit Judge John Clayton granted most of the bail reduction requests and conditions proposed by John Garrabrandt, an attorney with the Dan Birdsong law firm in Rolla who George Harry Widener, 64, of Jerome, has hired as his defense attorney in the involuntary manslaughter case against him.

Clayton said he had little choice but to grant the bond reduction. Widener has been held since shortly after the June 4 fatal crash on a $250,000 cash-only bond, which Clayton said was unacceptable. Clayton noted that the federal and state constitutions both bar imposition of excessive bail and in Missouri, nearly all defendants except those accused of capital murder, those who are flight risks, or those who pose a public safety risk are entitled to bond out of jail while awaiting trial.

“This case clearly does not fall within those exceptions,” Clayton said, arguing that the only purpose of keeping a cash-only bond would be to bring in revenue for the state or to keep a defendant in jail even though he’s presumed innocent.

None of those are acceptable reasons, Clayton said.

“We left debtors’ prison in England when we declared independence,” Clayton said.

Clayton’s ruling mostly followed Garrabrandt’s request, except that Garrabrandt had sought a $50,000 surety bond amount rather than $75,000.

“These are mere allegations; today’s hearing is not to determine guilt or innocence,” Garrabrandt told the judge. “Mr. Widener is a 64-year-old retired railroad worker. He is on a fixed income, he is not a man of substantial means, and to fix his bond at $250,000, particularly cash-only, is essentially to deny him bail.”

Garrabrandt acknowledged Widener’s criminal history, including three previous alcohol-related offenses dating back to 1983, but said his criminal history proves Widener is not a flight risk. Garrabrandt also noted that Widener is a lifelong Phelps County resident, and because of that, substantial pretrial release supervision is possible through the Phelps County OCCS program.

“Mr. Widener has never failed to appear for a court appearance,” Garrabrandt said. “He does not have the means to go anywhere.”

Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Hooper disagreed, and maintained that Widener’s prior criminal history shows he’s a danger to the public.

“Our position is $250,000 cash-only is an appropriate bond in this case,” Hooper said. “This is a very heinous incident — a man was killed on a motorcycle and he was severed into pieces.”

Hooper noted that the section of Old Route 66 onto which Widener turned is clearly marked and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have noticed signs indicating he went the wrong way. In fact, Widener’s offenses are progressing, Hooper said, citing a 1983 drunk driving conviction, a 1993 administrative suspension of his license, and a 1999 drunk driving conviction.

“We don’t want this to happen to anyone else in our community,” Hooper said. “We have some of the family members here and this is a very traumatic event that has occurred. We don’t want to have other family members here on a repeat offense … He should have learned, he didn’t learn, and we don’t want this to happen again.”

Clayton asked the lawyers if Widener has a driver’s license; his driving record showed that at the time of the June 4 fatal crash, he had a valid driver’s license and his driving privileges had been restored following the previous convictions.

Hooper suggested that if any bond reduction were to occur, it should only be the elimination of the cash-only requirement on the $250,000 bond, and then with very strict conditions.

That’s not appropriate, Garrabrandt argued.

“Leaving the bond at $250,000 is to deny bail,” Garrabrandt said. “There is no way he can come up with that amount of money.”

Garrabrandt said with a $50,000 bond, Clayton had enough experience with the local bail bondsmen to know they would make “extraordinary efforts” to locate Widener and return him to court even if he chose to flee the area.

Clayton ordered the bond reduction to $75,000 cash, surety or property, with special conditions of no use of alcohol, no driving, no contact with the victim's family, and no presence in establishments whose primary purpose is serving alcohol, and scheduled a June 25 preliminary hearing in the Pulaski County Courthouse at 10:30 a.m. That’s a change from the original June 17 date.

Hooper said she might need about four hours to present her evidence against Widener in the preliminary hearing, leading to questions from Clayton about the length of time needed.

“This is a preliminary hearing; this is not a trial,” Clayton said.

Hooper asked whether Clayton would impose any conditions requiring breath alcohol testing during his pre-trial release, but Clayton said he wouldn’t impose them.

“The purpose of bonds is to ensure that he shows up in court,” Clayton said. “I am not going to set probation conditions.”

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