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Pickup driver with lengthy record held in Florida bus crash that killed 8 Mexican farmworkers

By MIKE SCHNEIDER and TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
Published: May 15, 2024, 9:00am
3 Photos
Authorities work at the scene of a deadly crash after a bus carrying farmworkers collided with a pickup truck on State Road 40 Tuesday, May 14, 2024, near Dunnellon, Fla. The driver of the pick up, Bryan Maclean Howard, was charged with eight counts of DUI manslaughter.
Authorities work at the scene of a deadly crash after a bus carrying farmworkers collided with a pickup truck on State Road 40 Tuesday, May 14, 2024, near Dunnellon, Fla. The driver of the pick up, Bryan Maclean Howard, was charged with eight counts of DUI manslaughter. (AP Photo/Alan Youngblood) Photo Gallery

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A man with a long record of dangerous driving pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to driving under the influence-manslaughter in the deaths of eight Mexican farmworkers whose bus was sideswiped by his pickup truck in central Florida, injuring at least 40 other people.

Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, remains jailed without bond for Tuesday’s crash where the Florida Highway Patrol says he drove his 2001 Ford pickup into the center line on a two-lane road and sideswiped a farmworker bus, causing it to veer off the road, strike a tree and flip over. Court documents giving details of what substance Howard allegedly took remained sealed Wednesday afternoon.

He told a judge by teleconference from jail Wednesday that he’s a self-employed painter and drywall installer with $700 in the bank, no other assets and no dependents. Howard’s head was bandaged and he wore a protective gown typically given to inmates on suicide watch. The judge denied bond, appointed a public defender and set his next court appearance for next month.

Howard’s parents did not immediately respond to a Wednesday phone message seeking comment, and the Marion County public defender’s office declined comment.

Marion County court records show Howard has had at least three crashes and numerous traffic tickets dating back to 2006, including one citation for crossing the center line. His license has been suspended at least three times, the latest in 2021 for getting too many citations within a year. In 2013, he was convicted of grand theft. A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s consulate was working Wednesday to support a community of farmworkers after the accident involving a busload of seasonal farmworkers on their way to harvest watermelons.

Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign relations secretary, said via the social media platform X late Tuesday that all eight people killed were in the U.S. on H-2A farmworker visas. Florida farms use about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 of the farmworkers on the bus were Mexican citizens, hired by a Mexican-American farmer to work on the watermelon farm under temporary or seasonal visas. He did not release any more information on the victims, out of consideration for their relatives, he said.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to provide support at the AdventHealth Ocala hospital, where many of the injured were taken. The Florida Highway Patrol said names of the people who died would be released after relatives were notified.

Andres Sequera, a director of mission and ministry for AdventHealth hospitals, said chaplains were visiting the injured workers, and they “were in good spirits for what they have been through.”

“We were able to provide support, presence, prayer when it was asked of us,” Sequera told reporters.

The accident happened at about 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Orlando as the workers were going to Cannon Farms in Dunnellon.

“Thank you to all who have reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers” for the people hurt in the crash, Cannon Farms said in a post on its Facebook page that described the accident as happening at the Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp., which contracted the workers to pick its watermelons.

Cannon Farms, a family-owned operation that sends the melons to grocery stores across the U.S. and Canada, also said it would stay closed through Wednesday.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the crash. The company recently advertised for a temporary driver who would bus workers to watermelon fields and then operate harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

A Labor Department document shows Olvera also recently applied for 43 H-2A workers to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms this month, again at a base rate of $14.77 an hour, with promises of housing and transportation to and from the fields.

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The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or agents who meet certain regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Getting to and from the fields can be hazardous: Federal statistics show vehicle crashes were the leading cause of job-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of 171 fatalities.

It was not immediately not known if the bus had seat belts. The Labor Department announced new seat belt requirements for employer vehicles used for farmworkers on temporary visas, among other worker protections that take effect June 28. Florida law already requires seat belts for farmworker transport using smaller vehicles, weighing less than 10,000 pounds. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association has been opposed to the new federal seat belt requirement, calling it “impractical.”

Two advocacy groups called for stricter laws and enforcement to protect farmworkers, while a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida to support accident victims and their families had raised about $20,000 of a $50,000 goal by Tuesday night.

“Farmworkers tend to be forgotten, but it’s important not to forget farmworkers, especially during such difficult times,” the post said.

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