A Madison County man could receive up to 55 years in prison after pleading guilty to 18 charges resulting from a fatal crash in February that killed an Orange County girl.

Paul Vernon Welcher Jr. has entered guilty pleas in Madison County Circuit Court to charges related to a Feb. 28 crash that claimed the life of 12-year-old Hannah Marie Ford, who was ejected from a vehicle being driven by Welcher.

She died at the scene of the crash, which occurred at about 3:40 a.m. on Route 230 in the Radiant area of Madison County.

According to Virginia State Police, Welcher was driving eastbound in a 2000 four-door Lincoln when the car ran off the road to the right before he overcorrected. The vehicle then went off the road again, before Welcher struck a bank and the Lincoln overturned.

His 12-year-old daughter also was riding in the vehicle, and she and her father were treated and released at University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

In a statement of facts presented by the commonwealth, Virginia State Police Trooper Taylor Yowell said he observed signs of Welcher’s intoxication, but the defendant claimed a deer had run out in front of him, causing the crash. Blood drawn about 2 1/2 hours after the accident, however, revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.168 percent, or more than twice the legal limit.

Hospital records note that Welcher removed his IV and left the hospital without warning at about 10:50 a.m. on the day of the crash. He was arrested that afternoon at his home in Madison.

An investigation revealed that prior to the accident, Welcher picked up his daughter without her legal guardian’s knowledge. He had previously picked up a bottle of Wild Irish Rose from a neighbor.

Text messages from a neighbor to Welcher hours later stated that the neighbor’s wife was concerned about seeing Welcher driving after drinking alcohol. According to Verizon text message records, he replied, “I can hold my (liquor), I’m good.”

Text messages between Welcher and his daughter also involve him supplying her with alcohol and encouraging her to take money from others in her house to pay for gasoline and beer.

According to cellphone records, Welcher picked her up just prior to 11 p.m. in his Jeep. In an interview, the daughter said both she and Ford had been denied permission to go out.

A text message to the daughter from Welcher said Ford had blocked him and didn’t want to be picked up. However, she was later allowed to be picked up by a roommate without her mother’s permission. Surveillance footage placed the three at Walmart in Ruckersville in the early morning hours.

Cellphone information indicates the trio then drove back to Welcher’s trailer in Madison before, according to law enforcement, they returned to Orange County sometime after 3 a.m. so the girls could attend school later in the morning.

In a post-crash interview, Welcher’s daughter said she and Ford had consumed alcohol while at the trailer. Blood drawn found alcohol in the daughter’s system, but not Ford’s.

At the time of the crash, there was an active child-protection order for abuse and neglect against Welcher concerning his daughter. He was to only have contact with her as approved by her custodian and was to refrain from acts of commission or omission that could endanger her life, health or normal development.

Welcher’s driver’s license also was suspended for his failing to pay fines and costs associated with a prior criminal conviction. In addition, the Lincoln was only in Welcher’s possession so he could do maintenance on it as the owner did not give him permission to drive it otherwise. And the inspection sticker belonged to another vehicle.

Earlier this month, a Madison County grand jury issued true bills—a term endorsed on an indictment to indicate that a majority of grand jury members found that the evidence presented to them was adequate to justify a prosecution—in several charges against Welcher.

Last week, as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to all 18 charges—six felonies and 12 misdemeanors. The charges cover aggravated DUI; two counts each of child abuse and neglect with serious injury and child endangerment; unauthorized use of a motor vehicle; DUI transporting children; reckless driving; three counts of driving on a suspended license; violation of a child protective order; five counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and unauthorized inspection sticker.

The agreement allows the court to determine sentencing. If sentenced consecutively, Welcher could receive 55 years in a state penitentiary, plus an additional 144 months in jail and be required to pay $237,500 in fines.

A sentencing hearing has been set for Feb. 20 at 9:30 a.m.

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