PLATTSMOUTH — The six times she’s traveled from Topeka to attend court hearings for the man who destroyed her sister’s car, destroyed her family, Tabitha Bracken has had to avert her eyes. Sometimes, she thumbs through her phone. Most of the time, she reads a book.
She can’t bear to look at the cross that sits on the highway shoulder where her sister’s car was flattened, instantly snuffing out two women, ages 22 and 21, and two girls, ages 5 and 4. Only Tabitha, who was sitting in the passenger seat, survived — in part because her sister swerved to avoid the oncoming tank. A 2000 red Chevy GMT truck, weighing about 5,000 pounds, had entered the southbound lanes and smashed into Ashly Bracken’s 2009 Cobalt, half its size.
Tuesday, Tabitha again lowered her eyes. This time, it was to ensure no one saw her tears.
In a cozy three-row, two-table Cass County courtroom, she listened as the driver of the red truck, Ronald Dubas, 57, of La Vista, quietly entered guilty pleas to four counts of misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide 20 months after the Jan. 31, 2021, wreck that killed driver Ashly Bracken, 21, and backseat passengers Tatiyana Wade, 22, Kéniah Robinson, 5, and Malaysia Reece, 4, the latter two daughters of the best friends of the first two.
Tabitha emerged from court in a shirt with a photo of the four and the words: “Our 4 beautiful angels. In loving memory.”
Asked what she would want to convey to Dubas, Tabitha had no words.
“Honestly, I don’t know what to say,” Tabitha said, sniffing away tears. “I could kill him.”
For taking away Ashly, the big sis who was so close in appearance and attitude that many believed they were twins. And Tatiyana, who went by Tati, a gregarious woman studying to become a nurse who was every kid’s favorite auntie. The very reason she was sitting in the backseat of Ashly’s Cobalt was so she could be close to Kéniah and Malaysia, strapped in their car seats.
Kéniah and Malaysia, cousins and fast friends, would play, laugh and dance anything anyone threw their way, via TikTok.
Kéniah’s mom, Deja Bush, said she wouldn’t choose death for Dubas. “Just life,” she said, “in prison.”
They won’t get either. Under state law, Dubas faces up to a year in jail for each count of misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide — sentences that can be run either concurrently or consecutively. Judge David Partsch will sentence him Nov. 18.
Cass County Attorney Colin Palm said Dubas, who has been described as remorseful, had no alcohol in his system — and investigators couldn’t find evidence of recklessness or of texting while driving. Under state law, felony motor vehicle homicide requires prosecutors to prove that the driver was drunk or reckless. Had recklessness been proved, Dubas would have faced up to three years in prison on each count.
Which brings up the survivors’ other want.
“I want him strapped to a lie detector test so he can tell us, honestly, why he was in our lane,” Tabitha said.
That weekend started with a trip from Topeka to Omaha.
Sentrez Buckley, who was dating Ashly Bracken, and Martez Gregory, dating Michaela Reece and a stepdad to Malaysia, traveled to Omaha for a funeral of a family friend. Malaysia rode with them.
A day later, Ashly, Tabitha, Tatiyana and Kéniah followed, hoping to have a girls’ weekend in Omaha. They visited friends, shopped, had fun and were as loud as ever, Tabitha said.
Around 7 p.m. that Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, they headed out of Omaha, south on Highway 75 toward home in Topeka, Kansas. Gregory and Buckley were in a 2003 Mercury Mountaineer in front of Ashly’s Cobalt.
The night well on its way to deep-winter darkness, Gregory said he saw an oncoming truck’s headlights in his lane. Then the truck veered back into the northbound lanes. Then it came into Gregory’s southbound lane.
“At least twice,” Gregory said.
Gregory said he pressed the brakes to give the oncoming vehicle room. But the weird thing was, Gregory and Buckley said, the truck wasn’t passing any traffic in its own lane.
The last time the truck veered into his lane, Gregory swerved onto the shoulder, the truck barely missing him.
Behind them, the women had been singing and laughing and talking up a storm, Tabitha said. Subtlety was not their forte — part of the reason that Malaysia and Kéniah loved being in the car with their aunties.
Ten minutes into the ride, Tabitha realized that she had promised to drive home. She told her sister to pull over. “Remember, I pinky promised that I was driving home.”
Ashly said she was fine. They continued on the highway, which goes from four to two lanes outside Plattsmouth.
Tabitha, who remembers most of the ordeal, said she could see the headlights bearing down, directly in her lane. And then her sister yanked the wheel to swerve to the shoulder, calling out: “Why is he on my side of the ro ... “
“Then smack,” Tabitha said. “She didn’t get to finish her sentence.”
The car, all but demolished, essentially stopped in its tracks, coming to rest only 10 yards from the collision point, just south of Union, Nebraska. Gregory and Buckley rushed to the women. The left side of Ashly’s face was ripped away but Tabitha could see the right profile of her big sister’s face, which looked fine.
“Oh my God, Ashly’s dead!” the guys screamed, panicked.
“No she’s not,” Tabitha said. “She’s fine. She’s OK! She’s OK!”
She tried to get out of the crumpled car but couldn’t. She tried to rouse Tatiyana, Malaysia and Kéniah in the backseat but couldn’t.
“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, if I woke up from the guys’ screaming, why didn’t they wake up?’”
The grim reality has set in, but the questions haven’t stopped. The biggest: Why was Dubas in the southbound lane?
Nebraska State Trooper Jake Arnold, in conjunction with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, investigated the crash, determining that Dubas was traveling between 55 mph and 64 mph after impact. In an affidavit, Arnold wrote that Dubas gave a “couple reasons why he drove the wrong way on Highway 75.”
He told paramedics that he swerved to avoid a deer. He told investigators that he was passing another car when he crashed. Gregory and Buckley disputed both versions, saying they saw no deer and no cars that Dubas was passing.
Dubas then gave a third reason.
“Dubas stated he was distraught after leaving his brother’s (house) and he may have been wiping tears away from his eyes with his forearm,” Arnold wrote. A reason wasn’t given for his distress, though the victims’ family say they were told something about Dubas going through a breakup.
That led Michaela Reece, Tabitha Bracken and April Cohagen, Bracken’s mother, to question the reason for Dubas’ two trips into the southbound lane.
“Was he trying to kill himself?” Reece asked.
Palm declined to get into Dubas’ statements to investigators other than to say: “I don’t have any evidence of (suicide).”
Had there been, prosecutors could have determined that Dubas crossed the center line with intent — enough for reckless driving and a felony.
Instead, Palm said, investigators had evidence of only careless driving, which equates to misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide.
“Why was he in the other lane? I don’t know,” Palm said. “I just feel terrible for these families. What they’re going through, no one should ever have to go through. It’s unspeakable.”
Cohagen put some words to it. “Four lives? Four lives is a misdemeanor? Ridiculous.”
Ashly had been her sister’s best friend — loud and loyal and always wanting to connect via Facetime. Long hair and long, natural eyelashes, she had wanted to start her own makeup line, especially focusing on mascara. She was going to call the business “Ash’s lashes.” Tatiyana was studying at Washburn University to become a nurse. She needed no honing in the finer points of being an aunt, constantly spoiling her best friends’ kids with gifts and hugs and fun.
Hence her volunteering to ride in the backseat with Kéniah and Malaysia. A kindergartner, Kéniah was a by-request dancer and gymnast (“I can do a cartwheel!”), smart and at times, a smart aleck. She would question whether women might be pregnant based on their, um, girth. Malaysia also was a dancer and prancer. She was the sensitive child who, even at 4, could sense when something was wrong. “Are you OK, mom,” she’d ask Michaela.
“You could hear Ashly and Tati before they walked into the room,” Cohagen said. “They were loud and fun and full of personality. They all had long lives ahead. And now they’re gone. For what?”