10/20/13 — Hwy Patrol: Alcohol likely helped send van into trees

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Hwy Patrol: Alcohol likely helped send van into trees

By Matt Caulder
Published in News on October 20, 2013 1:50 AM

Witnesses say the driver of a white Ford Econoline van was swerving erratically moments before he ran off of the side of U.S. 117 Alt. into a stand of pine trees Friday afternoon.

The accident happened around 3 p.m., witnesses said.

Police estimate that the van was traveling about 75 miles per hour when the accident occurred.

The driver, Mark James Wheaton, 50, of Dudley, suffered head lacerations during the accident and was responsive when he left the scene, State Highway Patrol Trooper B.K. Leonard said.

However, as of press time, he was in critical condition at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.

No charges had been filed yet because of his medical condition, but officials noted that Wheaton was not wearing a seat belt and that both speed and alcohol were contributing factors.

"Preliminary investigation indicates that alcohol was a factor in the accident due to the strong odor of alcohol in and around the vehicle and two open containers found in the vehicle," Leonard said.

When the van careened into the trees, Wheaton was thrown into the passenger side window. Investigators said he was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident.

Before Wheaton ran off the road, he nearly hit two vehicles that were traveling in the southbound lanes, witnesses on the scene said.

"He was in our lane and at first I thought he was someone we knew being funny, but he jerked to the side and he about hit us," Sherie Powell said.

Mrs. Powell, her husband, Allen, and daughter were traveling south on U.S. 117 Alt to pick up her other daughter from Southern Wayne High School when the van came into their lane.

"He just went and lost control and cut off flying and there was a big boom," Powell said. "I opened the side door and saw his head and thought for sure he was dead."