Jessica Williams wants people to know she is sorry for what she did 20 years ago this week.
Williams, just 20 at the time, was driving a van that swept across an Interstate 15 median north of Las Vegas and struck six teenagers, killing them all, in what is widely viewed as the worst vehicular crime in Southern Nevada history.
Williams had marijuana in her system at the time of the crash, earning her a sentence of 18 to 48 years in prison.
Williams, now 40, was paroled in October. She told the Review-Journal in a recent interview that she is forever tormented by the suffering her actions caused.
“I never wanted to hurt anybody,” Williams said. “I don’t ever want to cause (the families of the victims) any more pain. I wish I could take everything back. I wish I could undo it all, but I don’t know how. I am so sorry.”
The crash resulted in a test case of Nevada’s law for prosecuting people who cause deadly crashes with marijuana in their system. Still, to this day — with marijuana now legal in the Silver State — Nevada struggles with the issue, and the state is now looking at revamping its laws concerning driving with the drug in one’s system.
The crash was also a turning point for Clark County on another front because the teens killed were participating in a youth services program that put them in the middle of a busy interstate. The people on the crew were picking up trash as restitution for misdemeanors such as curfew violations, theft or shoplifting.
Why were the six kids assigned to work in the middle of a busy interstate to begin with? There were no good answers. The youth work crew was given no safety equipment, and the supervisor of the crew was never given safety instructions to follow. Regulators fined Clark County for ignoring government safety regulations.
The county eventually settled a civil lawsuit filed by the victims’ families for more than $3.25 million.
Williams said she doesn’t blame the county for the kids being in the interstate. She blames herself for driving tired and falling asleep at the wheel.
“People try to say to me, ‘Well, it was only partially your fault. They shouldn’t have been out there,’” Williams said. “Well, I don’t care. That sounds great and thank you for trying to make me feel better, but it was still my hands on the steering wheel. It doesn’t matter.”
Williams served approximately 19 years in prison for causing the deaths of Scott Garner Jr., 14; Anthony T. Smith, 14; Jennifer Booth, 16; Alberto Puig, 16; Rebeccah Glicken, 15; and Maleyna Stoltzfus, 15.
Williams said she and a friend had driven to Valley of Fire State Park, roughly 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, on the morning of the tragedy. She had worked at a strip club in Las Vegas for a matter of weeks before the crash. The two finished work at roughly midnight.
“When we got home at midnight, we had used ecstasy, which was not smart,” Williams said. “Stupid 20-year-old.
“So we ended up going to Valley of Fire,” she said. “It was probably 10 in the morning, so we packed up a picnic, and we went up there. We parked, I showed her around, we hung out and we did smoke one bowl (of marijuana) together. That was normal for us to do every day.”
Williams said that shortly before she and her friend left the park, she lost her keys and sensed what she called “an overwhelming feeling of dread.”
“Something bad is coming,” Williams said. “It was so overwhelming, but I couldn’t resist because back then I was atheist.”
Williams, now a person of faith, said that at the time she believed that “there is no such thing as angels warning you.”
She found her keys a few minutes later and the two headed back toward Las Vegas on I-15.
“I knew I was sleepy but I felt fine,” Williams said. “You don’t know you are going to fall asleep. If you did, you would pull over and go to sleep.”
Williams, crying, said she woke up to the horrific sounds and the sight of “bodies crashing into (her) windshield” that afternoon.
She stopped the van and was mortified at the carnage she saw, with people running and screaming for help.
“The first thing I said to (my friend) was, even though I knew it was real, was, ‘This can’t be real,’” Williams said. “She said, ‘Yeah it is.’”
She was taken to University Medical Center, where she overheard a nurse saying, “‘Five of them are dead, but one is still alive.’”
The police questioned her and her blood was drawn. She answered all the police questions, admitting she’d smoked marijuana before the crash and ingested ecstasy the night before.
“I knew about the Fifth Amendment,” Williams said. “You watch shows and they tell you to ask for a lawyer, but I don’t care about that stuff. I just killed people.”
‘He was a good boy’
Henderson resident Scott Garner and his family — along with five other families — said he went through hell as a result of Jessica Williams’ actions.
His son, Scott Garner Jr., was one of the six killed in the median 20 years ago.
“My son was (like) any other kid,” Garner said. “He wanted to ride motorcycles. He was a good boy.”
He recalled how he went to pick up his son on the day of the crash, only to be told by county officials, “We think there’s been an accident. We think some of the children are hurt.”
“And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, great, he’s probably got a broken arm,’” Garner said. “Then we heard, the accident, there are some deaths. And the only way we can identify these children are what they were wearing.”
Garner said he watched as one after another, parents were called in to identify their children. His son was identified by some military dog tags he was wearing at the time, Garner said.
“They go in. They are nervous. They are crying. Then they come out, and they are totally in shock,” Garner said. “And then they got to me. And I knew it. I knew he was dead.”
The devastation was uniform for all the victims’ relatives, each of whom described the teens as wonderful kids stolen from them through Williams’ recklessness.
At Williams’ sentencing hearing in 2002, the mother of Maleyna Stoltzfus showed Judge Mark Gibbons a small wooden box containing her daughter’s ashes. Harriett Booth, the stepmother of Jennifer Booth, said her daughter had just purchased a prom dress before her death.
“We had Jennifer cremated in the prom dress that she was so excited about,” Harriett Booth said during the sentencing hearing. “Some of Jennifer’s ashes are in this cross that I wear close to my heart.”
Alberto Puig’s family members said that after the crash they couldn’t bring themselves to eat at the dinner table. Holidays are joyless, and birthdays are spent at the cemetery, they said.
“Only mothers can comprehend this. It is very difficult to reach this level of pain,” his mother, Mercedes Puig, said during the sentencing hearing.
After the accident, Brigitte Smith had the likeness of her late son, Anthony, tattooed on her chest. She said she also carries with her the spirit of the son she described as an opponent of illegal drugs.
“And you ended up taking his life, a drug user,” she said to Williams.
18 to 48 years
Williams was charged with a slew of felonies, including driving under the influence causing death, reckless driving causing death and driving with a prohibited substance in her blood. She was overwhelmed by the desire to kill herself for years after her arrest, she said, but she promised her attorney, John Watkins, she would not take her life.
“I would say for about the first five years all I wanted to do was just not be alive anymore,” Williams said. “I promised John that I would never do that because he told me that he had a client once that did that and how much it hurt him. I didn’t want to hurt him. So even though I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t (break my promise).”
Williams said that to this day she believes she was simply too tired to drive and that the drugs she ingested did not leave her under the influence. But, she said, she understands why people think differently.
A Clark County jury convicted her under the state’s driving under the influence statute under an aspect of the law that prevents people from driving with a prohibited substance in their blood. The jury, however, did not deem her as being under the influence while driving. Her trial received national television coverage, including gavel-to-gavel broadcasting by Court TV.
Williams said she dreaded every moment of the trial and fully expected to be sentenced to life in prison.
“Feeling all the pain that I had caused, seeing it on peoples’ faces, hearing it in their voice,” Williams said.
Watkins said Williams was different from many clients. He immediately recognized she was remorseful. He also believed the tragedy was an accident, not a criminal act, and he believed she was being prosecuted under a flawed law.
He said that state law prohibited marijuana from being in one’s system, but the levels of marijuana deemed to be unlawful had no relation to whether one was impaired. He said he tried to negotiate the case but the district attorney at the time, Stewart Bell, would not entertain plea agreements.
“At that time, everyone viewed her as the devil incarnate,” Watkins said.
He said that as the trial went forward, he believes that public opinion of Williams changed and that there was quite a bit of sympathy for her.
“She never tried to blame anybody else,” Watkins said. “A very, very unique young lady.”
One of the prosecutors on the case was Chief Deputy District Attorney Bruce Nelson, who has since retired. He said in a March 2 interview with the Review-Journal that he believes justice was served in the case. He said that driving under the influence of marijuana is a serious public safety threat and that Williams’ case demonstrates as much.
“To my knowledge, this is the biggest mass-casualty traffic collision we’ve had in Nevada,” Nelson said. “This was also really the first test of the marijuana laws. From a legal standpoint it was important.
“She did deserve to be convicted because she did use marijuana, drive a car and kill people,” Nelson said. “I still think she was impaired. … At the time, I thought the sentence was a little low, but in retrospect, compared to some of our other cases, it was probably right on.”
Life in prison
Williams said her first days in prison were terrifying. Over time, she said, she adjusted to the fact that this was her reality. She expected to serve the entire 48 years in prison because she “didn’t know how the system worked.”
She said support from her family and friends helped her cope with the reality of incarceration.
“Most of the women in prison are just normal people who did something stupid and won’t do it again,” Williams said. “I would say that is at least 50 percent. It’s kind of like day care. There’s really not a lot of structure or learning or anything positive. It’s really just kind of a dark, dark place.”
Williams spent a lot of time reading while incarcerated at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas. She estimates she read about 300 books a year. With financial assistance from her family, she was able to take college classes. She’s scheduled to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business in June.
By January 2019, Williams was moved to a transitional home for inmates. In October, she was paroled. She now works as an administrative assistant in the Las Vegas Valley, a job that was made possible through the nonprofit program Hope for Prisoners.
Her mentor in the program, Gregg Ketter, said he’s convinced that Williams will be a productive member of society going forward. He said his heart breaks for the victims of Williams’ crime, but he also believes Williams is now where she needs to be and can try to move on.
“It’s not that you don’t appreciate and regret a lot of things that have happened in your life, but to dwell on it, now that you are out and being productive and positive, that would be wrong,” Ketter said. “That’s the stuff that eats people up. But you can’t go back. You can’t rewind time.”
Williams’ release, though, does not sit well with Garner. Also very frustrating for him is the fact that he was never notified of the parole hearings. He was also not notified of her release and learned of it just this year.
A parole board spokesman said the state works hard to notify all victims of crime when their offender is up for parole. However, he said this often depends on victims and their families making sure their addresses listed with the state are current.
Garner said the state botched the notification of his family in what he believes is a violation of Marsy’s Law, which requires notification of victims’ families of certain legal proceedings and which greatly enhances a parole board’s ability to deny parole. As proof the state knew where to find him, he showed a series of restitution checks he received from Williams through the state. The checks were mailed to his current residence, where he’s lived for the last 15 years.
“This check is from the state of Nevada office of comptroller…Williams, Jessica, and this check was for $71.40,” Garner said, reading from one of the checks. “Apparently there is another check I never did receive that was for $30 a long time ago. Then there is another check I got for a big whopping $12.42, which I haven’t cashed. Same deal. Then another check for $6.21.”
Twenty years after the crime, Garner said he doesn’t believe the facts of the case were fully vetted. He does not believe Williams simply fell asleep at the wheel and instead believes she was driving recklessly. He said a coroner’s inquest would have helped determine Williams’ actions.
He also views Williams’ release as an insult to his family. He said he does not believe Williams has taken full responsibility for her actions, meaning she should have served the full 48 years.
He looks back on all the torment and loss and can take solace in one fact. He led a movement to pass a state law preventing anyone supervising juveniles in Nevada from placing them in harm’s way, including along an interstate or in other dangerous situations.
“No Nevada child should ever go through what our children went through,” Garner said. “There is a law in place that no child should ever be placed in harm’s way like that again. We have to make sure that our children did not die in vain.”
Contact Glenn Puit at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0390. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.
Those who died
Anthony T. Smith, 14
The Miley Achievement Academy student was described by family as a talented artist who liked karate, soccer and football.
He was an aspiring actor.
He and his mother watched movies together for hours. Sometimes they watched the same ones over and over.
Jennifer Booth, 16
The Las Vegas High School student volunteered at a local hospital and dreamed of becoming a nurse.
Just before her death, Jennifer had received her driver’s permit and was looking forward to attending the prom.
Alberto Puig, 16
After being transferred to Jefferson Opportunity School in North Las Vegas, an alternative school for students with disciplinary problems, Alberto seemed intent on success. He had raised his grades enough to leave Jefferson for Horizon High School.
In a journal he completed shortly before the accident, he wrote, “I will be the only one to ever finish school in my family out of my brother and sister. I have to finish to make my mom proud.”
Rebeccah Glicken, 15
The Green Valley High School 10th grader had a flair for art. Rebeccah enjoyed drawing and once told a friend she dreamed of starting her own cosmetology business after college.
After her death, students decorated her desk with farewell messages and disassembled it as a sign she could not be replaced. More than 1,500 people attended her funeral.
Maleyna Stoltzfus, 15
The Centennial High School freshman was remembered by classmates as one of the most outgoing students at the school.
She dreamed of one day starting her own rock band.
Scott Garner Jr., 14
The Washington Opportunity School student liked to skateboard and ride dirt bikes. Friends and family said he was a practical joker who dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL.
He was buried in a BMX riding suit.
Clark County launches court-ordered work restitution program for juvenile offenders.
Apex landfill opens north of Las Vegas. Trash accumulates along Interstate 15, and youth offender crews occasionally remove the garbage.
Clark County commissioners demand more be done to control trash on I-15. County officials reach an informal agreement with trash company on assignment of juvenile offender crews to collect garbage along the highway.
February 1994 to to February 2000
Teenage offenders log 7,000 shifts picking up trash along I-15 between Cheyenne Avenue and Apex landfill. The teens were assigned to pick up trash as part of the Department of Family and Youth Services’ youth highway cleanup program, part of a probation work program.
March 19, 2000
Five teenagers are killed when Jessica Williams drives into the freeway median where they are picking up trash. A sixth teen dies the following day.
State regulators fine the county $3,000 for ignoring safety regulations for roadside cleanup programs. The county disbands the program.
A jury convicts Williams of driving with a prohibited substance in her blood, causing death.
Williams is sentenced to 18 to 48 years in prison.
Clark County pays a $3.25 million settlement to the families of the six teenagers. Two trash collection companies pay undisclosed settlement amounts.
Williams and her attorney, John Watkins, win an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled that “good time credits” served in prison apply to minimum sentences and not just the maximum.
From 2004 to 2019, seven parole hearings are held for Williams. She was denied parole four times, but on June 3, 2019, parole was granted, according to records from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners. Williams was released into the community on parole on Oct. 2.
Source: Review-Journal archives. Compiled by Glenn Puit.