July 5, 2018, wreck and fire

Marion Center, Plumville and Creekside fire departments extinguished a fire July 5, 2018, at Pikel's Top Tier Fuels.  (Gazette file photo)

A northern Indiana County man who fought allegations that he was entirely to blame for the death of a clerk in a burning convenience store has pleaded guilty to the most serious charges that he faced.

James Eugene Brown, of Rossiter, was held in connection with a car crash July 5, 2018, at the junction of Routes 119 and 85 in Home, Rayne Township, that led to the death of Melissa Myers, of Commodore.

Brown admitted to police after the wreck that he had taken heroin and smoked marijuana while driving north on Route 119, then lost control of the car at the intersection where the highway bears right and Route 85 cuts off to the left. He told investigators that he drove because a companion with him in the car was too impaired.

The car went straight over the curb in the middle of the intersection, hit the gas pumps and slammed into the entrance of Pikel’s Top Tier Fuels service station, investigators said. Flames engulfed the car and building and Myers, 52, with no means of escape, died in the shop, authorities said.

After two years of legal maneuvering — including time spent free on bond, when he was arrested on shoplifting charges — Brown pleaded guilty July 24 and awaits sentencing in October for counts of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, accidents resulting in personal injury, driving under the influence of drugs and DUI during a license suspension.

In a plea agreement negotiated by defense attorney Taylor Johnson, nine other counts were set aside, another was dismissed and the last of 15 original counts was withdrawn by prosecutors.

Brown, now 35, had spent 13 months in the Indiana County Jail following his arrest on the day of the wreck, when bond was set at $250,000.

He was released Aug. 5, 2019, when he was granted unsecured bond of $50,000 but was returned to jail July 10 after apparent violation of the terms of his release. Bond then was set at $500,000. Brown’s legal troubles extend to four other cases, according to online court records.

He pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor count of receiving stolen property filed by state police in connection with an incident on May 8, 2018, in Indiana, two months before the deadly wreck.

While awaiting adjudication on the traffic death charges, Brown was accused on June 29 of a felony count of retail theft and a misdemeanor count of receiving stolen property, stemming from an incident on June 18 in White Township. He gave up his right to a hearing and opted for adjudication in the county common pleas court.

Brown also was charged with conspiracy to theft by deception on June 26 in White Township. State police lodged the charges June 30, and Brown waived a preliminary hearing of the allegations.

The counts that landed him in jail again were accusations of retail theft and theft by deception filed by state police, who charged that Brown altered the price label on merchandise June 18 at a retailer in White Township and arrested him July 9. Brown waived his right to a preliminary hearing and faces formal arraignment on the counts in those three cases Sept. 29 in the county courthouse.

Sentencing for the fatal crash is set for Oct. 9 before Judge Thomas Bianco.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.