Sheriff says cuts have reduced patrols on curvy highway
GEISMAR — Mitchell Johnson Jr. had been fishing with cousin David Lanus, Lanus’ two children and another cousin for about an hour Tuesday in a bayou along Bluff Road in northwestern Ascension Parish.
The fish weren’t biting.
But Johnson said the five hung in there, sitting along the bank of the bayou, when a sport utility vehicle driven by a Prairieville woman came out of nowhere and ran into the group. Lanus’ children, Sarai, 9, and Daylon, 6, were killed.
“She just hit us,” Johnson, 23, said of the driver.
Johnson said it was hard to tell what occurred before the crash because he did not see anyone on the rural, two-lane road beforehand.
“It happened fast,” said Johnson, who is from Geismar.
Johnson spoke by telephone Wednesday from a hospital bed in Baton Rouge, where he was awaiting surgery for a leg broken in three places from the crash.
As friends and family in the Geismar area mourned the loss of the two Lanus children, State Police said they are investigating what led up to the fatal crash about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. Troopers have not decided whether to cite or arrest the driver, Shawnette B. Taylor, 47, of Prairieville.
“We’ll know a whole lot more once our investigation is done,” Trooper Jared Sandifer, Troop A spokesman, said Wednesday.
Troopers said Taylor drove off Bluff Road in a curve and down a steep embankment, running into the group fishing along the bayou. She was not in State Police custody Wednesday, Sandifer said. A call to Taylor’s home Wednesday rang unanswered.
Shayla Lanus, 30, the mother of Sarai, Daylon and their younger brother, Dyson, said her husband, David Lanus, called her shortly after the crash, distraught, saying he had been hit and their children were unresponsive.
She said her husband, who is also 30, had picked up the children from a summer camp about 2 p.m., made a short stop at home and headed out to go fishing with the children about an hour and a half before the frantic call.
Attempts by passersby, including some medical professionals, to save the children Tuesday were unsuccessful.
“They go (fishing) all the time. You just never think something like this could happen,” Shayla Lanus said.
She said her husband is in the hospital with a broken leg and will recover but she has no idea what they will do next.
“I just got to be strong for my 1-year-old. He is now an only child,” she said.
State Police provided different first names for the children Tuesday, but Lanus said their names are Sarai and Daylon.
Distant family and neighbors who live near the Lanuses on Anderson Road, which is in a rural pocket of Geismar between Dutchtown and the chemical plants, said the Lanuses’ mobile home and trampoline were the spot to play for neighborhood children. The loss of Sarai and Daylon, students at Dutchtown Primary School, has hit hard.
“We all grew up in the same neighborhood. We see them every single day. It’s like family,” said Crystal Washington, 35, who also lives in the area.
Daeshannon Alexander, 14, who lives with her mother down Anderson from the Lanuses, too, said she would see Daylon, who was known as “Duce,” riding his scooter all the time on Anderson.
“They knew everybody, and everybody knew them,” Alexander said.
Doris Green, director of the Caring Parents of Geismar summer camp held at the Geismar Community Center, which is just up La. 74 from the Lanuses’ home, said a counselor spoke Wednesday with the children, who then made a stack of condolence cards and letters. One read, as only a child could sincerely write, “Sorry for your lost!!!”
Camp worker Catherine Carey showed math and reading worksheets that she had helped Daylon with Tuesday. Carey and others said Daylon, who was headed into first grade in August, was already a great reader.
The crash also has prompted questions, some posted on Facebook and on The Advocate website Tuesday and Wednesday, about the safety of Bluff Road, a winding, two-lane rural state highway known as La. 928 that runs along the western edge of the Bluff Swamp.
During the past five years, Bluff Road between the Interstate 10 overpass and Paille Drive has had 34 crashes, state highway officials said.
Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the stretch of highway is not on the state’s “abnormal list,” which indicates a higher than average number of accidents.
Bluff Road, which carries about 4,800 vehicles per day, serves as one of several commuter links between chemical plants on the Mississippi River and workers’ homes in Ascension and parts farther north and east.
Sheriff Jeff Wiley said Bluff Road is like many heavily used state highways in Ascension. Speeding is a problem.
“Factually, candidly, it’s an over-capacity state highway, which is underenforced by State Police and only enforced by us as we get to it,” he said.
Wiley said he is not laying blame with State Police but pointed to continuing budget cuts that have left State Police undermanned and unable to do the traffic patrolling it once did. That job has been left to sheriffs.
“When you take a 5-ounce cup of coffee and put 8 ounces in it, it overflows and makes a mess, and that’s what we have here,” Wiley said.
But the sheriff said speeding may not have been the issue in this case and state highway officials said the curve some are pointing to had warning signs in both directions.
Wiley said Taylor, who was driving south, claimed she was trying to avoid oncoming vehicles that were driving around dump trucks stopped in the northbound lane of Bluff Road.
“Troopers are looking into that as we speak,” Trooper Sandifer said. He added that whether Taylor was speeding is to be determined.