Crime

Myrtle Beach man pleads guilty in fatal 2008 motorcycle crash during spring rally

A Myrtle Beach restaurateur charged with felony driving under the influence involving a fatal motorcycle crash during the 2008 spring Harley-Davidson rally pleaded guilty Monday to lesser charges and was ordered to pay restitution to the victim’s family.

Michael Hilton, 63, pleaded guilty Monday to third-degree assault and battery and to first-offense DUI as part of a plea agreement and was ordered to serve 30 days in jail on each charge or pay $900 in fines for the two charges. The sentences will run concurrent.

Hilton also must pay $265,000 in restitution to the victim’s family and the woman who survived the crash by July 24, or the plea and sentencing will be set aside and Hilton will face a trial, Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Culbertson said noting the agreement.

If Hilton fails to pay restitution, he could be tried on the charges that were originally filed against him, felony DUI with death and felony DUI with great bodily harm, Culbertson said. Those charges carry maximum prison terms of 25 years and 15 years, respectively.

As part of the plea agreement, Hilton must also have an ignition interlock installed on his vehicle for six months. He also surrendered his license Monday to the Horry County Clerk of Court after the plea.

Hilton’s case was on the Horry County trial roster and was set to be tried this week.

Myrtle Beach police charged Hilton after the crash that happened about 10 p.m. May 10, 2008, when officers said he tried to turn left onto Wildwood Dunes Trail from Kings Highway, said David Fernandez with the S.C. Attorney General’s office, which prosecuted the case.

Angelo Gonzalez, 44, of Boardman, Ohio, was driving his motorcycle in the northbound lane with his girlfriend Susan Reader, who was 36 at the time, riding on the back, Fernandez said. Gonzalez struck the back right portion of Hilton’s pickup truck and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Reader suffered severe leg injuries and has undergone 12 surgeries and continues to walk with a limp, Fernandez said. Hilton had a blood alcohol level of .15, almost twice the legal limit.

But Hilton’s attorney, Richard “Dick” Harpootlian, said they sought and had the breath test results suppressed from being included in his trial two years after the crash.

“It’s a complicated case,” Harpootlian said.

Hilton was given the breath test more than two hours after the crash and his arrest, and the machine used was one of the oldest in the state at the time, Harpootlian said.

In February 2009, the S.C. General Assembly amended the state’s drunk driving laws to say that blood-alcohol tests must be administered within two hours of a person’s arrest.

Harpootlian argued that the amendment should apply retroactively to Hilton’s case and in 2012 Culbertson agreed and signed an order suppressing the results in the case.

The state Appeals Court reversed Culbertson’s ruling in 2013 and the state Supreme Court declined Hilton’s appeal of the ruling in 2014 on the case.

Hilton declined to comment about the case or to speak on his behalf during the hearing.

Harpootlian also told Culbertson that a civil case involving the victims and Hilton was tried earlier this year and the jury found Hilton was not negligent in the crash.

“Mr. Hilton could not have seen that motorcycle,” Harpootlian said and cited an expert who testified during the civil trial. There are “grave concerns about the evidence.”

Ilan Wexler, an Ohio-based attorney who has represented Reader and Gonzalez’s daughter, said Monday that he was there on behalf of the victims.

“It’s been a long arduous process,” Wexler said. “They are in favor of resolving this matter. They wish to put this behind them. . . . This family looks for closure.”

The crash was the second fatality involving Hilton.

In 1991, no charges were filed after Keith Linden Jr., died after he was struck by a vehicle driven by Hilton on U.S. 17 near Restaurant Row. Police said the crash was an accident and no charges were filed.

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or on Twitter @tonyaroot.

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