HOMER CITY — Several felony homicide-related charges were held for trial Tuesday against a man who allegedly on July 6 drove a car into a landmark gas station between Indiana and Marion Center, causing a fatal fire.
James Eugene Brown, 33, who first was reported to be homeless but has a Rossiter address in court papers, was returned to the Indiana County Jail in lieu of $250,000 after a preliminary hearing before Homer City Magisterial District Judge Susanne V. Steffee.
Steffee found a prima facie case against Brown on six felony counts: Homicide by vehicle; homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence; aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI; and two counts of accidents involving death or personal injury while not licensed.
A second count of aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI was withdrawn.
Steffee also bound over a case against Brown on misdemeanor counts of DUI-general impairment and driving under the influence of a combination of drugs; and nine summary traffic offenses including making false reports to police.
State police said Brown smoked marijuana and took heroin before his northbound car jumped a curb at Pikel’s Top Tier Fuels service station, plowed through the fuel pumps and slammed sideways into the gas station and snack shop.
Gas station attendant Melissa Myers, 52, of Commodore, died after the car and building burst into flames and trapped her inside, according to the Indiana County coroner’s office.
Brown and a passenger, Michael Anthony White, 32, of Punxsutawney, escaped from the wrecked car before the fire erupted, and White fled on foot heading north along Route 119.
State police said Punxsutawney Borough police located White, 32, in a residence in Punxsutawney about three hours after the wreck and took him to Punxsutawney Hospital for treatment of injuries he suffered in the crash.
White was questioned and released. No charges have been filed against him.The July 6 incident first was reported to Indiana County Emergency Management’s 911 center at 1:18 p.m.
Area volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene after being told someone was trapped in the building, and minutes later found Myers dead.
Fire officials summoned the coroner at 1:40 p.m., according to the 911 center.
The service station, formerly known for decades as Pikel’s Universal Auto Repair, sits at a fork in the highway where U.S. Route 119 bends right toward Marion Center and state Route 85 splits left toward the Plumville area.
When troopers first arrived, Brown claimed to be the passenger and blamed the crash on White, but a witness, Larry Wannett, told police that Brown was the driver. Suspecting that Brown was impaired, troopers took him into custody at the scene.
After Brown told investigators that he had smoked pot earlier in the day, he was taken to Indiana Regional Medical Center for a blood test and medical care related to the crash, according to the report.
When troopers returned Brown to the state police station, he confessed that he and White had bought heroin in Indiana and used drugs before the crash. Trooper Matthew B. Shrum wrote in the complaint that Brown admitted that he drove the car, even though his license was suspended, because “White was in no shape to drive the vehicle.”
“He was driving and took his eyes off the road. For unknown reasons he lost control and crashed into the gas station,” according to the affidavit for the charges.
Volunteers from the Marion Center, Plumville, Creekside, Clymer and Commodore fire departments and the Indiana County rapid-intervention team fought the fire. Citizens’ Ambulance Service paramedics and Penelec workers also responded to the scene.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reported that Route 119 was closed from Route 85 to Washington Church Road while firefighters extinguished the burning building.