On January 31, 2016 Michael Prater was out for a bike ride. He was relatively new to the Cincinnati area but was well known in the cycling community as an avid cyclist. Around 4pm that day Michael was riding westbound along U.S. Route 52 near the Ohio River. At that same time, unbeknownst to Michael, Melinda Woodall was coming up from behind Michael in a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Michael was familiar with U.S. 52 – a big, fast road with very wide shoulders and very few intersections/driveways. Many riders use U.S. 52 as a training route and typically ride along the wide shoulder. Michael took this approach on January 31.
What happened next is pretty clear – the WHY though may never make sense.
Melinda Woodall was “under the influence of drugs” and “allowed her vehicle to drift onto the right shoulder” as she continued westbound along U.S. 52 “until she closed the gap” between her Jeep and Michael and slammed into Michael from behind. This caused Michael to come up onto the hood of the Jeep and be thrown forward. He came to rest some 130+ feet from the point of initial impact according to the Deputy Sheriff who reconstructed the crash.
Melinda Woodall kept right on driving, leaving Michael Prater to die on the side of the road.
Woodall was observed by witnesses – police quickly tracked her down.
Deputies found Woodall out of her car, walking up Sutton Road, talking on the phone. She attempted to reach for something inside of her shirt and she was arrested and cuffed. When she was searched deputies found a stash of drugs and paraphrenalia including pills, a tourniquet, several syringes a metal spoon and a large amount of currency.
A “DRE” – Drug Recognition Expert – was called to the scene and opined after an extensive interview that Woodall was likely “under the combined effect of a CNS depressant and a narcotic analgesic.” Preliminary tests turned up Fentanyl, opiates and Subutex.
After hearing her Miranda rights twice Woodall told Deputies a couple strange stories. First, she was not the driver but a passenger and a male driver left the scene on foot. Then she told Deputies that how there were three other people in the car with her who were fighting in the back seat. She claimed she dropped them off at the nearby casino. The third story was that there were two passengers – “Alyssa and Dave” – who had paid her $100 for a ride from New Richmond to Cincinnati. Again she claimed she dropped them off at the casino after the crash.
Police did their due diligence – pulling the casino security footage to show that Woodall’s Jeep never entered the area. They also closely examined the car and the debris inside the car. From that they could determine that only the driver’s seat of the Jeep was free from glass shards. All other seats in the Jeep had glass resting on top of, or embedded into, the seats. Other items in the Jeep had glass shards resting on top. This told investigators that it was highly unlikely that someone was sitting in those seats when the front windshield exploded. If there HAD been passengers, then the glass would have coated the passengers, not the seats, and when the “passengers” exited, they would have taken debris with them, and the seats would have been as clean as the driver’s seat…
Woodall was arrested and charged with numerous crimes including Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, Felony Leaving the scene.
After the usual court proceedings leading up towards a trial Woodall recently decided to plead No Contest to the charges. Ohio allows a “No Contest” plea. It basically means “yes, the facts stated about what happened are true but I am not admitting that those facts make me guilty of a crime.” The judge then takes a close look at the admitted facts, applies the law and generally says “Yes, those admitted facts DO make you guilty of a crime, so I am finding your guilty of a crime.” The benefit of a No Contest plea to the defendant is that the guilty finding cannot be used against her in a civil case.
Judge J. Patrick Foley III found Woodall guilty of all charges and has set Woodall’s case for “Sentencing” on August 31, 2016 at 9:00 am. There will be a hearing at that time at which folks are permitted to speak. Typically this means family and friends, but members of the community can also sign up to speak.
Cyclists frequently ask me how they can “Get Involved” in these matters when someone is killed and a criminal case is presented. I usually tell them to comfort the families, talk to the friends, remember the victims, use the energy in a positive manner, help bicycle advocacy groups… There really isn’t much folks can do during the pendency of a criminal case except, maybe, show up at hearings to let the defendant, prosecutor and judge know that the cycling community is watching the case…
But… once there is a Guilty finding, you CAN get involved. You can write a letter to the judge and tell the judge what YOU think the sentence for Ms. Woodall ought to be. You can explain the impact a crash like this has had on Michael’s family, his young babies, his wife, his extended family, his “work” family at REI and on the Cycling Community. Those are all very fair topics for a judge to consider when crafting a sentence to punish a killer.
A maximum sentence would be 17 years. Defense counsel is on record stating that 4-8 years is what he would expect…
If YOU want to get involved, and tell the judge what YOU think, here are the details. Write to:
The Honorable J. Patrick Foley, III
The Hamilton County Courthouse, Room 495
1000 Main Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202
State v. Woodall, Case No. B16-00608
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court
Remember… —>YOU are the voice of the Cycling Community so YOU can certainly let the judge know how you feel.