Pierceton Man Facing Felony Charges For Causing Death Of His ORV Passenger

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The driver who wrecked an off-road vehicle in Pierceton Saturday that killed his passenger has been hit with felony charges.

Joel Russell Zehner, 39, of 416 EMS R4 Lane, Pierceton, was booked in the Kosciusko County Jail at 11:02 p.m. Saturday and faces a Level 3 felony charge of failure to stop after an accident resulting in injury and a Level 4 felony charge of operating a vehicle causing death.

According to the probable cause affidavit filed Monday in Kosciusko Superior Court III, Kosciusko County Central dispatch received a 911 call just after 7:40 p.m. advising of an ORV crash with injury in the area of EMS R4 Lane just east of Ridinger Lake and that the passenger, later identified as Jason Tolle, 45, of Pierceton, was unresponsive and CPR was being administered by a passerby. The 911 caller also said the driver, Zehner, fled on the wrecked ORV.

When an Indiana conversation officer arrived at the scene, according to the affidavit, he noticed large clumps of dirt, grass and mud along the road and also located a half-full bottle of whiskey and a cold beer can. The officer also located a large pool of blood where the victim was said to have been located and deep tracks circling the property, leading to the area in which the blood was located.

Police then learned the driver was Zehner and the passenger was Tolle.

Tolle was unresponsive and bleeding from the mouth and nose area. He was flown by Lutheran Air to Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, where he died from blunt force trauma.

According to court papers, after an extensive search of the area, police located Zehner’s vehicle in a parking area of the Deniston Resource Area, approximately 3.2 miles from the scene of the crash. Deputies from the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department located Zehner in the area using a K-9 and Zehner was holding a handgun to his chin and talking on a cellphone.

Officers eventually persuaded Zehner to put the gun down, but during the standoff, Zehner allegedly told officers he was not going to live in prison for killing his friend. Zehner also told police, according to the affidavit, that he and Tolle had been having a few drinks and he was driving around on his ORV when he lost control of the vehicle.

Police reported a strong odor of alcohol emitting from Zehner when they took him into custody, along with red, blood-shot watery eyes and slurred speech.

Zehner’s BAC registered at 0.157%, according to court documents.

Zehner had been convicted of operating a  motor vehicle while intoxicated in 2003 and operating a vehicle with a controlled substance in the body in 2008.

His bond was set at $20,250.

Funeral arrangements for Tolle have not been announced as of Wednesday.