A Lebanon teen pleaded guilty Tuesday to vehicular homicide for the March death of a longtime Lebanon High School coach.
Judge Barry Tatum sentenced Darius Johnson, 17, of Lebanon, to probation and 250 hours of community service after Johnson pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by recklessness.
Randy Vanatta, 58, died March 30 from injuries sustained in a crash at the intersection of Woodside Drive and Winwood Drive.
Lebanon police Chief Scott Bowen said Johnson, who was driving a Chevrolet Cavalier, had been traveling south on Winwood Drive at a high rate of speed. Vanatta was driving an Audi TT2 when he entered the intersection headed east on Woodside Drive and was struck by Johnson’s Cavalier.
Bowen said there were no signs of alcohol or drug use at the time of the crash.
According to Asst. District Attorney Linda Walls, Johnson had no prior juvenile record and no prior traffic violations.
Johnson’s attorney, Alan Poindexter, asked that Johnson be placed on “diversion,” which would allow the charge to be dismissed after he completed his hours of community service.
“We’re not trying to diminish his actions and the seriousness of this event,” said Poindexter.
He said that otherwise while Johnson’s record would be, in theory, sealed as a juvenile, he would in actuality have to reveal the conviction on applications, particularly for college.
Johnson, a senior at Lebanon High School, told Tatum he has plans to attend Middle Tennessee State University.
Tatum agreed to place Johnson on diversion, and explained his reasoning. He said placing a juvenile into the custody of Children’s Services is the most drastic action a juvenile court judge can take, and there are two general scenarios that warrant it: the juvenile has needs too great for community service or probation to adequately address them; prior interventions in juvenile court have been unsuccessful.
“Your record is bare,” said Tatum to Johnson. “You have no history or pattern of reckless behavior.”
He noted that Johnson likely had not been driving very long given his age.
Johnson’s license was issued barely four months before the crash, according to Walls.
“We’ve got a young man who’s on track to graduate,” said Tatum.
“Bad thing is we’ve got somebody whose life has been taken,” Tatum told Johnson. “This is one of those things that you’ve got to carry in your heart for the rest of your life.”
Tatum indicated he thought Vanatta would agree with the sentence.
“Coach Vanatta was somebody who enjoyed young people and made a career out of young people and realized the value of helping young people,” said Tatum.
Vanatta coached the Lebanon High School golf team for more than 20 years and also served as an assistant coach under Campbell Brandon on the Lebanon girls’ basketball team.
Tatum suggested Johnson work with the District Attorney’s Office and Lebanon police Officer Steve Green as part of a defensive driving course or to create a public service announcement relaying the dangers and consequences of reckless driving.
“[A PSA] could impact not only this community, but those well beyond,” said Tatum.
He said they could produce it in a way that would protect Johnson’s identity while still making an impact, and the PSA could count toward Johnson’s community service hours.
In addition to 250 hours of community service work, which Johnson will have to pay a $50 fine – the cap for a juvenile charge – and complete Teen Safety School. Additionally, he will have to participate in a victim impact panel. Johnson's driver's license has already been revoked.
“Taking somebody’s life, intentionally or otherwise, that’s a heavy burden to bear. You might want to consider talking to somebody about it,” Tatum suggested to Johnson in closing.