Seale man facing murder charge pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter in death of man he struck in Waffle House parking lot

Dustin Ray Horton pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter

Dustin Ray Horton, of Seale, Ala., pleaded guilty Monday morning to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2009 death of Scott Jeremy Drago outside a Columbus Waffle House. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

On June 28, 2009, Horton, 22, punched Drago, 36, around 3 a.m. in the restaurant’s parking lot on 6751 Veterans Parkway. Drago fell and struck his head. Police said Drago, a former Lee County sheriff’s deputy, sustained a fractured skull which resulted in a brain hemorrhage where he landed on the asphalt. He was pronounced dead at 9:46 p.m. that day.

“We were able to negotiate a plea down from murder to involuntary manslaughter,” said Horton’s attorney Frank Martin. “And I thought the acts fit involuntary manslaughter, and I thought that they did not fit murder.”

Involuntary manslaughter refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence. The usual distinction from voluntary manslaughter is that involuntary manslaughter is a crime in which the victim’s death in unintended.

“So it really was not reasonably foreseeable that to punch someone in the face would result — you know just one punch, just punched him one time and that was it — would result in the death of the person,” Martin said. “The punch to his face was in no way life-threatening at all, but it fit the definition of involuntary manslaughter in that he was responsible for someone dying even though he had absolutely no intention whatsoever to kill the person. But it set in motion a chain of events that resulted in his death.”

Heated argument

Horton and some of his friends were standing in the parking lot of the North Columbus Waffle House when Drago and a friend pulled up. Horton and others had to move before Drago could park, and that led to Horton saying he’d almost been run over, police said.

A heated, profanity-laced argument erupted between the two men, though a police officer testified last year in Columbus Recorder’s Court that it didn’t last long. Drago and Horton reconciled before Drago and his friend proceeded into the restaurant. They spoke about Drago’s truck and sports and they established they were both in the National Guard, police said.

At some point, Drago was lured outside by Horton, who claimed he wanted to talk about his car, police said.

Horton then struck Drago in the face without warning, and Drago fell to the pavement. Horton and a friend then got into Horton’s vehicle and left. Horton was arrested at a Russell County home around 11:30 a.m. to following day.

Drago, who was found about 15 feet from his truck, worked as a deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office from January 2001 to October 2005. He also served in the U.S. Army for six years and was active in the Army Reserves.

Horton’s 10-year sentence is the maximum provided under the law for involuntary manslaughter.

Martin said his client apologized to Drago’s family in court during his sentencing. “He told them how much he regretted it because it not only resulted in them losing a son and a brother, but it also ruined his life because he has an 18-month-old child,” Martin said. “It was a very sad occasion all around.”

Assistant District Attorney David Helmick declined to answer questions about the plea but said, “It’s just a tragedy.”