Melissa Dano

Bland pleads ‘not guilty’ to leaving scene of fatal crash

RENSSELAER — A Terre Haute man accused of leaving the scene of a fatal crash in October pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Jasper County Circuit Court.

Joseph Bland, 43, is charged with leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, a Level 5 felony. He had been identified by investigators as the operator of the white semi-tractor trailer that allegedly failed to stop at the intersection of U.S. 231 and State Road 16 on Oct. 10 that struck and killed Melissa Dano, 40, of Rensselaer.

Bland’s first appearance in court Tuesday included a noticeably-high police presence, including Rensselaer Police Chief Matt Anderson and Jasper County Sheriff-elect Pat Williamson. Anderson said this was because of the potential for someone to act out during the court proceedings since emotions could be running high. 

Jasper County Courthouse security escorted Bland back to his vehicle after his plea had been entered and his new court dates were set.

During the hearing, Circuit Court Judge John Potter asked Bland about his job status since the accident. Bland said he was on an undated leave, and he agreed with Potter that this meant he had essentially lost his job after the accident. Since Bland did not have a lawyer, Potter arranged for one to be appointed for him. 

The hearing was attended by members of Deno’s family, including her mother, Cindy Burks, of Wheatfield. Burks wore a jacket bearing the slogan “Justice for Missy” in reference to her daughter’s death, and said she had wished for a plea of guilty in light of the evidence in the case.

That said, she didn’t have anything to say for Jasper County Prosecutor Jacob Taulman, who will be handling the case after being sworn in this week.

“I don’t even know what I’d say,” Burks said. “I think it’s out of my hands.”

Bland is currently scheduled for an omnibus hearing on Jan. 22, followed by a pretrial conference Feb. 19 and a jury trial March 5 — all of which will begin at 9 a.m. 

The accident

On Oct. 10, Jasper County Dispatch was called about a traffic collision at the intersection of U.S. 231 and State Road 16, south of Rensselaer, saying a car had struck a tractor trailer, and that the tractor trailer had left the scene. 

When investigators arrived, they found the badly-damaged car and spoke to a witness, Jerry Akers, who claimed to have seen the entire accident unfold.

Akers had been traveling south on U.S. 231 and was preparing to make a turn onto State Road 16. The detective later accessed surveillance camera footage from the nearby Rose Acre Farms facility, which showed events consistent with Akers’ story. 

The footage reportedly depicts the tractor trailer traveling west on State Road 16, toward the intersection, where it begins to slow down but does not come to a complete stop. Instead, the tractor trailer accelerates through the intersection. 

Deno’s red passenger car is also visible in the footage, where it can be seen traveling north on U.S. 231 and striking the driver’s side of the trailer. The car passes underneath the trailer and comes to rest on the north side of the intersection, after also striking Akers’ vehicle.  

After the accident, Akers tried to flag down the tractor trailer. According to reports, Akers stated that the truck “appeared to slow to a stop” past the intersection after the car had passed under it, but then kept heading west. 

Jasper County investigators were later able to find the tractor trailer, and Bland was identified as the man driving it at the time of the collision. Investigators initially pursued a charge of reckless homicide against Bland, but was later changed to leaving the scene of a accident resulting in death. 

Bland surrendered to deputies at the Jasper County Detention Center shortly before 1 p.m. Dec. 8, then posted a $1,500 cash bond and was released. Though he must fulfill his obligations in court, he is not currently in police custody. 

The intersection of U.S. 231 and State Road 16 has since been converted from an intersection with flashing light signals to a four-way stop. Previously, the north-south portion of U.S. 231 was equipped with yellow flashing lights, and the east-west portion of State Road 16 with red flashing lights.