ST. LOUIS — A New Jersey man behind the wheel of a van that careened off a southern Illinois freeway near Vandalia, killing five passengers, had no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system and won't face charges, a prosecutor said Wednesday in declaring the wreck a tragic accident.
Fayette County State's Attorney Joshua Morrison said blood samples drawn from Malcolm Purnell after the May 20 wreck on Interstate 70 detected only drugs given to him while he was hospitalized for injuries sustained in the crash.
Illinois State Police already have ticketed Purnell, 45, for driving with a suspended license and improper lane usage, and his next scheduled court appearance on that is Sept. 30.
"This was a tragic accident. That's exactly the way I'd put it," Morrison told The Associated Press, noting that there's no evidence the wreck was caused by anything "malicious" or intentional by Purnell, of Camden, N.J.
Purnell has declined repeated AP requests for an interview.
The 11 occupants of the 15-passenger van were members of an evangelical Christian church returning from a weeklong international conference in Ontario, Calif., near Los Angeles, when the vehicle inexplicably swerved off of the interstate 70 miles east of St. Louis and flipped several times, ejecting nine of the men. The five people killed died at the scene.
Purnell told investigators from his hospital bed he was unsure if he nodded off behind the wheel, acknowledging he was fatigued after driving for about six hours, according to an Illinois State Police's accident report the AP obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to the accident report, Purnell said the men left California the day before the wreck and had been driving non-stop back to the East Coast, rotating drivers and sleeping when not behind the wheel.
Purnell has done prison time in New Jersey on a robbery conviction.
Purnell's driver's license was suspended last year by a court after he failed to resolve insurance issues and did not make three required payments to get his driving privileges restored, New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission records show. Purnell's license also was suspended briefly in 2002 after falling behind on child support, though he has had no actual driving-related violations over the past decade or so, the driving records show.
Purnell and others in the van were members of Victory Outreach International of San Dimas, Calif., which works largely in inner cities and provides residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation in many locations, the church's overseer for Christian recovery said. Philip LaCrue added that the victims were returning from the yearly Mighty Men of Valor convention, which the church's website says helps men find spiritual direction and their role in the church.