Omaha senator wants answers after fatal accident with inmate behind wheel - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 4:01 pm
Omaha senator wants answers after fatal accident with inmate behind wheel

LINCOLN — A fatal accident involving a prison inmate with a bad driving record is raising concerns with an Omaha state senator.

Sen. Heath Mello said Thursday that he's seeking answers from state corrections officials about what procedures allowed an inmate with two drunken driving convictions and several other driving offenses to drive a state van.

“This is a public safety concern,” Mello said. “We need to know how they make these decisions.”

The questions come after a fatal accident Tuesday evening on a residential street in Lincoln involving a state van driven by Jeremy Dobbe, an inmate at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln.

Lincoln police said they received multiple reports of the 2011 Ford passenger van driven by Dobbe swerving as it headed down Van Dorn Street at a high rate of speed, and running a red light before the collision.

A police accident report said the eastbound Ford van crossed the center line before crashing nearly head-on into a Nissan minivan driven by 47-year-old Joyce Meeks of Lincoln.

Meeks was pronounced dead at the scene. Dobbe was transported to the Bryan Medical Center west campus, where he is being treated for injuries that aren't believed to be life-threatening.

Dobbe, 35, of Schuyler, Neb., is serving five to seven years in prison on charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, terroristic threats and criminal mischief from Colfax and Butler Counties.

Court records also indicate several other convictions, including driving while intoxicated in Colfax County in 1999 and in Platte County in 2003.

He was also convicted of careless driving in Colfax County in 2010, willful reckless driving in Platte County in 2003, reckless driving in Stanton County in 2001 and as possession of marijuana in Platte County in 2000.

A witness to the crash, George Weaver Jr. of Lincoln, questioned how an inmate with such a poor driving record would be allowed to drive a state van.

Weaver, 28, was driving westbound on Van Dorn and said he saw the bigger van “swerving” down the street coming toward him.

Weaver said he pulled off the street to avoid the van, but the vehicle behind him, the Nissan minivan, didn't have a chance to avoid a collision.

“I'm lucky to be alive,” said Weaver.

Another witness to the accident, 17-year-old Colin Koehler, estimated that the state van was traveling 50 mph when it passed him. The posted speed limit is 35 mph.

On Wednesday, state prison officials issued a press release expressing condolences to the Meeks family.

Late Thursday morning, the corrections department provided more information about its inmate driver program. Spokeswoman Dawn Renee Smith said that since 1985, inmates have been allowed to drive other work-release inmates to and from jobs when city buses are not running.

Six vans operate in the Lincoln area, she said. At the time of the crash, 10:20 p.m. on Tuesday, Dobbe was heading to 14th and M Streets in Lincoln to pick up inmates.

Smith, in a press release, said that inmates are selected as van drivers based on several factors, including past driving record (with particular attention to recent history) and chemical abuse history. She said weekly urine tests are administered to such inmates.

Inmates are automatically ineligible to be van drivers, she said, if they have been convicted of a crime that took a human life or if a motor vehicle was used as a weapon in a crime.

Smith said the incident will be reviewed “in detail to determine any concerns or changes necessary to the program or policy.”

Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly said Thursday that his office was investigating the accident and considering criminal charges.

Contact the writer: Paul Hammel

paul.hammel@owh.com    |   402-473-9584    |  

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues and helps coordinate the same.

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