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Suspect in fatal Florida worker crash has long criminal record

By Mike Schneider and Terry Spencer | Associated Press

OCALA, Fla. — A man with a long record of reckless driving pleaded not guilty Wednesday to driving under the influence – manslaughter in the deaths of eight Mexican farm workers whose bus was sideswiped by his pickup truck in central Florida . Dozens more were injured.

Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, remains jailed without bail for Tuesday’s crash in which the Florida Highway Patrol says he drove his 2001 Ford pickup in the center line on a two-lane road and hit a bus The farm worker, causing him to deviate from the road, strikes a tree and turns him over. Court documents detailing the substance Howard allegedly consumed remained sealed as of Wednesday afternoon.

He told a judge via teleconference from jail Wednesday that he was 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 bail, appointed a public defender and scheduled 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 to comment.

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 A year later, his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine.

Meanwhile, the Mexican consulate was working Wednesday to support seasonal farm workers, who were on their way to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon when the accident occurred around 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, about 80 miles north of Orlando.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday morning that 44 Mexican farm workers were on the bus, hired by a Mexican-American farmer to work on the watermelon farm on H-2A visas. Florida farms employ about 50,000 H-2A workers each year, more than any other state, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetal Association.

A Mexican government statement Wednesday said six of the injured were in serious condition and three others were in critical condition.

The Mexican consulate in Orlando was working to support AdventHealth Ocala Hospital, where many of the injured were taken. The Florida Highway Patrol said the names of the deceased will be released after next of kin are notified.

López Obrador said he would not provide more details to protect workers’ families. Immokalee Workers Coalition co-founder Lucas Benitez said consular officials told them the dead farmworkers came from at least five different states in Mexico.

Andres Sequera, mission and ministry director for AdventHealth Hospitals, said chaplains visited injured workers and “were in good spirits after what they went through.”

“We were able to provide our support, our presence and our prayer when asked,” Sequera told reporters.

Cannon Farms, a family-owned business that ships melons to grocery stores across the United States and Canada, said it would remain closed until Wednesday.

“Thank you to everyone who reached out and offered condolences, help and prayers” for those injured in the accident, Cannon Farms said in a Facebook post describing the accident as having occurred in Olvera Trucking Harvesting Corp.

No one answered the phone at Olvera Trucking after the accident. The company recently announced it was looking for a temporary driver who would transport workers to the watermelon fields and then operate the harvesting equipment, at $14.77 an hour.

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

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 dangerous: Federal statistics show that vehicle accidents were the leading cause of work-related deaths among farmworkers in 2022, the latest year available. They accounted for 81 of the 171 deaths.

It was not immediately known whether Olivera’s vehicle, which the highway patrol described as a “retired” school bus, was equipped with seat belts.

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