Harrison County

Three years sober, this Coast man picked up a drink. A near-fatal disaster followed.

Nathan Brian McWilliams
Nathan Brian McWilliams

When he climbed behind the wheel of his pickup truck in September, Nathan McWilliams was on probation for felony drunk driving.

He was, he later admitted, drinking again.

Mike Gillich III of Biloxi was crossing Bayview Avenue on his way to IP Casino. McWilliams, then an IP maintenance worker, slammed into Gillich before he reached the sidewalk, court records say.

Gillich’s face was bloodied, a police report says, plus he suffered injuries to his ribs, shoulder and knee. He was rushed to the hospital.

Gillich might never have known who hit him had a passing motorist not followed McWilliams to his home in rural Vancleave in Jackson County, where, court records show, he was arrested for the fourth time on a DUI charge.

Gillich claims in a lawsuit filed in Harrison County Circuit Court against McWilliams and Boyd Gaming, parent company of IP, that negligence on their part caused the accident. He wants compensation for his injuries, plus punitive damages.

McWilliams, 57, was convicted twice of driving drunk in D’Iberville, once in May 2010 and again in February 2011.

In Mississippi, a third DUI is a felony. His felony DUI conviction came in March 2015. According to court records, his blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit after Harrison County deputies pulled him over.

McWilliams pleaded guilty to the felony charge, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Judge Roger Clark sentenced McWilliams to one year in custody, on the district attorney’s recommendation, in exchange for a guilty plea.

The judge allowed McWilliams to serve his year under house arrest, then he had to serve four years’ probation.

McWilliams was working the day of the accident, Gillich’s lawsuit says. And, it says, he was drinking on the job while working off-site. He returned to the casino to clock out.

“And, despite being visibly intoxicated, in addition to being known to habitually drink alcoholic beverages to excess, McWilliams continued to drink at IP Casino before leaving and striking Gillich,” the lawsuit says.

Where’s the proof?

Business establishments can be held liable in Mississippi if they serve alcohol to someone “visibly intoxicated,” who then injures another person while in that condition.

But “dram shop” cases, as they are called, can be hard to prove.

“Even police officers have a hard time proving someone is visibly intoxicated without having them blow into a breathalyzer,” said Harvey Barton, who has handled about 10 such cases and won several. In one case, a credit card receipt included enough drinks to prove the defendant would have been visibly drunk.

“It really depends on the facts of the case and what you can prove,” he said.

In its response to the lawsuit, IP Casino denies any liability for the accident or knowing McWilliams might have been drunk. IP attorney Patrick Buchanan of Biloxi said he could not comment on Gillich’s pending civil lawsuit.

McWilliams’ attorney, Stephen Peresich of Biloxi, did not return a telephone call to comment.

A ‘life-changing’ event

McWilliams is asking that Gillich’s lawsuit be suspended until potential criminal charges in Harrison County are resolved. The city of Biloxi has dropped misdemeanor charges against McWilliams in favor of pursuing felony charges that could include fourth-offense DUI, DUI causing injury and leaving the scene of an accident causing injury, his motion for suspension says.

McWilliams was convicted in October in Jackson County Justice Court of first-offense DUI, even though he had prior convictions.

A month later in Harrison County, Judge Clark revoked McWilliams’ probation and ordered him to prison for the four years remaining on his 2015 sentence.

McWilliams submitted a letter to Clark before the hearing. In it, he said that he was a “recovering alcoholic” who had been sober for three years until he fell away from his 12-step program.

“I started drinking and ended up in a very real life-changing event that could have ended with the loss of life,” he wrote. “I did lose my job of 17 years. I may very well lose my home and my wife . . .”