Examining a fatal crash investigation: Part 1
Published 7:00 am Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Publisher’s note: This is part one of a three-part story examining the investigation into a 2019 fatal crash in Southampton County.
James “Jamie” Lee IV and Sherry Lee, of Courtland, lost their son, James Lee V, in 2019 when he passed away in a single-vehicle crash on Vicksville Road in Southampton County.
The ensuing investigation by the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office did not result in charges being brought against anyone, including the driver of the vehicle, Deana Pittman.
In the weeks following the crash, the Lees contacted the member of the sheriff’s office who first responded to the scene, Deputy James “Hank” Fuller. He responded to their request for their son’s belongings, delivering them.
Weeks later, the Lees sought to meet with Fuller to discuss the crash investigation and left multiple messages. They said after repeated attempts to reach out to him, they ultimately received no response.
The Lees eventually decided to hire a lawyer, Jack T. Randall, and fund their own investigation, which resulted in a civil case that included a significant amount of work done by attorneys, a private investigator and an accident reconstructionist. The investigation also led to a series of depositions, several of which will be referenced throughout this story.
The results of this investigation were presented to Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric A. Cooke, who decided to charge Pittman on Nov. 16, 2020, with a class 5 felony stemming from Virginia Code Section E.46.2-894, which reads as follows: “Duty of driver to stop, etc., in event of accident involving injury or death or damage to attended property; penalty.”
Pittman, along with the other two surviving passengers of the crash, left the scene before police were called.
The commonwealth’s attorney missed a deadline to file a written list of witnesses expected to testify at trial, which prompted Pittman’s lawyer, Justin T. Bush, to file a motion on Feb. 28, 2022, to dismiss the indictment against her.
Concerned the case could be dismissed, Randall advised the Lees to accept a plea agreement from Bush to have Pittman’s charges reduced from felony hit and run to a class 1 misdemeanor of reckless driving, with the admission of her alcohol consumption and speeding being factors in the crash.
Solely to avoid the possibility of a dismissal, the Lees accepted the agreement, and Pittman pleaded guilty to reckless driving, admitting that alcohol and vehicle speed were factors.
Pittman was sentenced Feb. 21 in Southampton Circuit Court to serve six months in jail.
SUMMARY OF THE CRASH
Pittman was the driver of a 2006 Jeep Wrangler in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2019, carrying three passengers — Hunter Bryant, Preston Harvanek and James Lee, the latter of whom was in the front passenger seat.
The Jeep was involved in a single-vehicle crash on Vicksville Road, reportedly between 1-3 a.m., resulting in the death of Lee, who was 20 years old.
Witness testimony ultimately featured conflicting narratives on what caused the crash.
Fuller testified in an April 23, 2021, deposition that the witnesses were consistently reporting that James Lee was standing up in the Jeep and came down and somehow the wheel was affected and the vehicle went into the woods.
Bryant later testified that he never saw anyone grab the steering wheel.
Pittman’s initial testimony was that her passengers had drank alcohol that night but that she had not had anything alcoholic to drink, as she stated in a Sept. 19, 2019, interview with the claims department at Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance Company.
All four passengers of the vehicle were younger than the legal drinking age of 21.
Pittman later admitted to drinking, but Bush maintained that there was no evidence that she was impaired, stating that while she contributed to the crash, she was not the cause of it.
Camden Porter, in a March 30, 2021, deposition, testified that he received a call from Harvanek to come to the scene. Porter said he arrived, and while he could not specifically remember what was being said, he remembered hearing Pittman say they needed to go and something about waiting until morning or something along the lines of, “Here’s what we have to do. We can’t be getting into trouble. Let’s go to Hunter’s house and figure this out.”
Porter testified that he did not want to leave the scene, but Pittman was pressuring him to leave. They went to Bryant’s house.
Harvanek testified in a March 30, 2021, deposition that when they got to the house, he and Pittman left, and he dropped her off at the end of her driveway.
Fuller indicated that the call reporting the crash came in to dispatch at 3:22 a.m. After having difficulty finding the crash site on Vicksville Road, he went to an address given to dispatch, which was Bryant’s home. At 3:40 a.m., he picked up Bryant, who helped him find the crash site.
Fuller indicated he did not encounter Pittman until around 6:30 a.m. when she returned to the scene with her father.
In his comments just before announcing Pittman’s sentencing, Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Sandwich Jr. said, “What we’re here for is what happened after the accident.”
He noted that while he could understand Pittman being scared, what she did after the crash is one of the “most callous things” he has ever seen in this kind of situation.
Sandwich sentenced her to 12 months in jail for the charge of reckless driving, with six months suspended. He revoked her driver’s license for six months, and she is to engage in continued alcohol counseling and therapy.
He also sentenced her to 12 months of supervised probation. She received a $500 fine, and Sandwich said she also has court costs that could be offset by community service.
Pittman was remanded immediately into custody to begin serving her time.
Around 200 community members were on hand for the sentencing hearing in support of the Lee family.
At the hearing, all four members of James Lee V’s immediate family gave testimony to the impact Pittman’s behavior and the whole incident had on their lives.
Sharing insights into who James was as a person were his twin sister, Miranda Lee, and his younger sister Morgan Lee, along with his parents.
In addition to sharing their thoughts and feelings about Pittman and her behavior, the Lees also alluded to the incredible pain they experienced from there being no consequences or justice realized across the past three-and-a-half years in connection with James’ death.
“So here we are in this courtroom today after enduring extended and unnecessary delays,” Sherry Lee stated. “I cannot put in words what this has done to my family. The mental anguish, prolonged suffering not only mental but physical as well for over three years now. James has had four birthdays since this case started and been delayed, unfinished and no one has been held accountable or endured any consequence for their choices and actions, not only for that night but hereafter.”
The testimony of Jamie Lee contained extensive and pointed criticism of the job performance of the sheriff’s office in relation to the crash investigation, focusing particularly on Fuller.
Jamie Lee also briefly addressed Cooke’s performance in relation to the missed deadline.
The Tidewater News recently sent a series of questions to the sheriff’s office and Cooke, seeking responses to some of Jamie Lee’s points and seeking insights on the investigative and prosecutorial processes as they relate to this case.
What follows will be a presentation of parts of Jamie Lee’s testimony from the Pittman sentencing hearing, along with information derived from the Lees’ investigation, and the responses provided by the sheriff’s office and Cooke to the aforementioned inquiries.
CRASH INVESTIGATION EXPERTISE
Jamie Lee noted that Fuller did not call for help from the Virginia State Police for the Sept. 15, 2019, crash, and Lee later acknowledged that this is not required, though he said it should be in cases that involve a fatality.
In the April 23, 2021, deposition, Fuller was asked if he could have called in the state police crash team on this case, and he said he could have.
When asked why he did not, he said, “Because we work our own crashes.”
He was asked if this is more of an administrative decision or his own decision.
“It’s because we’re capable of doing it ourselves,” he said.
Maj. Camden Cobb, of the sheriff’s office, stated that Fuller, Sgt. R.T. Stevens and Capt. Serena C. White were all on scene to investigate the Vicksville Road crash.
“Each of these deputies has received specialized training in regards to crash investigation,” he said.
He indicated that the training records for Fuller indicate the following crash investigation training:
- He is a 2002 graduate of the 102nd Basic Session of the Virginia State Police training academy;
- He received 2012 Advanced DUI Training for Prosecutors and Law Enforcement;
- He was certified in 2015 for the Fundamentals of Crash Investigation;
- He was certified in 2015 for Advanced Crash Investigation and Reconstruction; and
- He was certified in 2022 for Traffic Crash Reconstruction.
Cobb said that since December 2015, the sheriff’s office has investigated 27 fatal motor vehicle crashes. The date given reflects when the sheriff’s office’s new records management system was put into place.
“Of those 27 fatal motor vehicle accidents, VSP responded to 15 of these crashes,” Cobb said.
To clarify whether or not “responded” meant VSP was called in to help, Cobb and sheriff’s office staff searched through the dispatch notes for each of the calls.
Nine of those 15 times that VSP responded it was because the agency was requested by the sheriff’s office for a total station, which is a scene diagramming/measuring tool similar to what is used by surveyors, Cobb stated. Two of those 15 times VSP was requested for traffic control and once for its motor carrier unit. Twice it is unclear why VSP was requested, and in one instance the notes say VSP was responding, with no mention if they were requested or not.
Roughly half the time that the sheriff’s office has responded to fatal crashes since December 2015, the sheriff’s office handles it without calling for the state police.
Jamie Lee said Fuller never took any measurements or calculations of speed.
In the April 2021 deposition, Fuller was asked if he made any speed calculations at any time, and he replied, “We did — we did not.” He then was asked, “Was there any evidence of speed —” and before the question was completed, he responded, “No, ma’am.”
The speed limit on Vicksville Road is 55 mph, but Jamie Lee noted that the curve where the crash happened is preceded by a 25 mph sign 283 feet before the curve.
In the deposition, Fuller described what he typically does when investigating a fatal crash, and included in that description, he said, “We typically take some type of measurements; sometimes we do them by hand, other times we will call the state police to bring what they call a total station, and that’s just an instrument.”
Among the people hired by the Lees during their investigation was James Overton, an accident reconstructionist with Bloomberg Consulting LLC.
Overton stated that as of the time of his preliminary report, “it is our understanding that Sgt. Fuller nor Detective White took any measurements of the tire marks or any other physical evidence at the scene.”
Overton conducted an investigation that involved examination of photographs taken by White the night of the crash, examination of an exemplar 2006 Jeep Wrangler and an examination at the scene of the crash approximately a year and 23 days after the event occurred.
He utilized a variety of measurements to reach certain conclusions.
In his report, he noted that Fuller, in his deposition testimony, identified tire marks shown in scene photos taken by White as yaw marks.
Overton stated that a yaw mark is produced when the maximum lateral force is being generated by the tires causing the rear of the tire/road contact patch to break loose, and the rear tires ultimately begin to track outside the front tires. This produces a curved tire mark with visible lateral/angled striations.
A yaw mark is produced by a harsh steering input, he noted, before listing the following ways to generate a harsh steering input, causing a yaw mark to be produced:
- Over-corrections — common for drivers who become inattentive and realize they are no longer in their travel lane or running off the road, and the driver puts too much steering into trying to correct the vehicle position;
- Startled driver — may steer too hard to avoid a hazard;
- Driver taking a turn too fast, resulting in the tires generating the maximum lateral force.
During his deposition testimony, Fuller was asked, “So you would acknowledge there’s other ways that a Jeep can make a quick right turn, other than a passenger grabbing the wheel, correct?” And he replied, “Correct.”
But Fuller also explained why he and White chose not to pursue any charges.
“The yaw marks were — they coincided with the (witness) statements as the wheel being snatched straight to the right. We didn’t see any evidence of where (Pittman) ran off the road to overcorrect or anything like that. It was the vehicle went — went around a curve, and it just — the yaw marks show it going straight off the right side of the roadway. Based on that, what we saw at the scene, their statements, myself and Detective White chose not to pursue any charges.”
Overton ended his preliminary report with the following conclusions based on his analysis of information and his education and experience:
- Computations, based on all available data to date, determined that the Jeep occupied by Pittman, Lee, Bryant and Harvanek was traveling a minimum of 42 to 53 mph at the onset of the yaw marks.
- Traveling 42 to 53 mph through an approximate 15.76-degree curve (radius of approximately 363.5 feet) to the right will create centrifugal forces on James Lee if he is standing or sitting which would pull him towards the driver and possibly onto the driver, if he was standing and not holding on properly.
- There was no testimony provided by the involved parties that suggested that James Lee fell left toward the driver or onto the driver. The closest testimony to that was Harvanek’s statement that Lee fell straight back into the seat and kind of on the center console, and at that time Lee’s arm moved over toward the steering wheel hitting Pittman’s arm and hitting the steering wheel.
- Due to the time lapse of approximately one year and 23 days between the crash occurrence and our investigation, along with the lack of documentation of the physical evidence by the investigating sheriff’s office, there is not enough evidence, thus far, to definitively determine how this crash occurred.
THE YOUNG MEN AT THE CRASH SITE
Fuller testified in his deposition that when he arrived at the crash scene on Sept. 15, 2019, with Bryant, three or four young men came out of the woods and confirmed that the vehicle was back in the woods. An attorney asked him if he got the names of these young men, and Fuller said, “I didn’t, not at that time,” because he wanted to get to the vehicle and James Lee to ascertain James’ condition.
At the sentencing hearing, Jamie Lee said Fuller never stopped or asked the boys that were seen walking out of the woods at the accident who they were or what they were doing. Jamie said he imagined they were trying to dispose of alcohol in the vehicle.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if Fuller obtained those young men’s names at a later time and questioned them, but there was no response to this question.
The sheriff’s office was also asked if there was any concern that those young men could have tampered with the scene somehow, taking something from it.
“I do not believe that anyone tampered with any evidence that may or may not have been left at the scene,” White said.
Publisher’s note: Part two, to be published Wednesday, April 12, delves further into the case and the contrasting views of the investigation.