Examining a fatal crash investigation: Parts 1, 2 and 3
Published 7:15 am Wednesday, April 19, 2023
Publisher’s note: This is, in its entirety, The Tidewater News’ story examining the investigation into a 2019 fatal crash in Southampton County. The length of this article and the limited space in our print edition made it necessary to break the story into three parts. Parts one and two are included below for context, and part three begins below them with the section “Interactions with the commonwealth’s attorney.”
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.
FINDING A MISSING DRIVER IN A FATAL CRASH
As Fuller and other deputies worked the crash, Pittman was not present at the scene for the first few hours.
The Tidewater News told the sheriff’s office that based on some first responder testimony, it seemed like Pittman’s absence was holding up the investigation at the scene. The Tidewater News asked why deputies or troopers were not dispatched to Pittman’s house to see if she was there so she could be brought back to the scene rather than waiting for her to voluntarily return or for her father to independently find her and bring her back.
“Ms. Pittman’s actions or lack of presence did not hold up the investigation,” White said. “Although the investigation could have moved more quickly had Ms. Pittman been on scene, there were still actions that could be taken while she was absent. Photographs had to be taken, the vehicle had to be visually and physically inspected, the medical examiner needed to be called, etc. There were a lot of tasks completed while Ms. Pittman was absent; however once she returned, we were able to focus solely on her.”
Regarding fatal crashes in which the driver is absent, The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if there is a common practice among law enforcement for resolving that situation.
“During a fatal crash investigation, you ultimately want to locate the driver by any means necessary,” White said. “In this instance, the father showed up to the scene and was tasked with finding his daughter and bringing her to the scene since she was not at home, her friends did not know where she was, and she was not answering her phone.”
BODY CAM OR CAR VIDEO FOOTAGE
Jamie Lee said he asked for body cam footage and police car camera footage from the night of the crash but was told there was none.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if there was any body cam or car video footage taken that night, and Cobb said, “I am not aware of any video from this case.”
The relevant follow-up question listed was, “If no, why not?” No response was provided.
INTERVIEW WITH PRESTON HARVANEK
Harvanek testified in his March 2021 deposition that no detectives or any law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s office ever followed up with him after someone from the sheriff’s office left him a voicemail in 2019.
At the deposition, he was asked by an attorney, “Did you ever have any contact with Hank Fuller —” and Harvanek replied, “No, sir,” and then the attorney finished the question by saying “— from the sheriff’s office?” Harvanek again said, “No, sir.”
During his April 23, 2021, deposition and the Feb. 21, 2023, sentencing hearing, Fuller testified that he interviewed Harvanek by phone on Jan. 27, 2020. When asked at the deposition why there was such a delay, Fuller said, “I didn’t have his phone number or anything at the time, and then I got it, and then I made contact with him.”
The Tidewater News noted to the sheriff’s office that given Harvanek’s view of the steering wheel from his position in the rear passenger-side seat, it seems like his testimony could be crucial to proving or disproving the narrative of the crash in what was a death case. The Tidewater News asked why it took more than four months to obtain Harvanek’s number, but no response was provided.
Other sources in law enforcement indicated that such a delay in interviewing an additional witness would not be unusual in some instances.
OBTAINING THE FR300 CRASH REPORT
Jamie Lee noted that repeated attempts were made to obtain the FR300 crash report from the Sept. 15, 2019, crash to no avail for a significant period of time after the crash. He said Randall’s paralegal, who is experienced in obtaining these reports, was sent to pick it up several different times over a period of several months, and there wasn’t one there.
In a written impact statement submitted to Cooke, the Lee family said, “Miraculously one has appeared since then, backdated, of course,” and they suggest this was almost 18 months after the crash because they said, “(Sgt. Fuller) never filled out a police report until almost 1 1/2 years later.”
Virginia State Code 46.2-373 states that any law enforcement officer who investigates a crash that results in injury, death of any person or property damage resulting in at least $1,500 he/she must complete a crash report (FR300) within 24 hours and submit it to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if this code was followed in the Sept. 15, 2019, crash, and if so, could the sheriff’s office offer any insight into why the report might not have been found by those looking for it?
“I cannot answer why someone would have stated they could not find a report for this case,” Cobb said. “While the case was still pending review by the commonwealth’s attorney, the investigative report would not have been released prior to a prosecution decision; this may have caused a miscommunication about the availability of a report, but again, I am not sure.
“I am aware of a (Freedom of Information Act) request that was made to our office on 7/31/2020 where all available information was released, to include the FR300 crash report,” he continued. “The information was released because the commonwealth’s attorney declined to pursue charges in this case on May 12, 2020, according to a supplement in the case file.”
Cobb stated that the approval log for the FR300 crash report shows that it was approved by a supervisor on Sept. 18, 2019, at 9:42 p.m.
“This information cannot be changed,” Cobb said. “The report would have been submitted prior to that approval date. Any changes to the report would cause the report to have to be approved again.”
FAILURE TO CONTROL VEHICLE
Under the Driver’s Action column of the police report, Fuller marked “Fail to Maintain Proper Control” for vehicle 1.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office why no charge was filed against Pittman for failure to control the vehicle. No response was provided.
Fuller testified in his deposition that Pittman admitted at the crash scene to having consumed alcohol around lunchtime the day prior, and he also testified that it was obvious Bryant was intoxicated.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office why no charges were filed against Pittman or others for underage drinking.
“Law enforcement has discretion concerning misdemeanor offenses,” Cobb said. “The priority at this scene was the investigation of the crash.”
THE “HAD NOT BEEN DRINKING” SELECTION
According to the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Police Crash report, Fuller marked “Had Not Been Drinking” under the Drinking section. In his deposition testimony, he noted that Pittman had admitted to having drank alcohol at lunchtime the day before. He testified to smelling alcohol on her, and she blew a .001 for her preliminary breath test, which took place at least four hours after the crash. He also testified that he believed she was lying about not having drank any alcohol since lunchtime the day before.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office why Fuller marked “Had Not Been Drinking” on the report. No response was provided.
LACK OF INTERVIEWS FROM PARTY
In the April 2021 deposition, Fuller was asked, as far as he knows, if he or White interviewed anybody that was at the party from which Pittman, Bryant, Harvanek and Lee had left prior to the crash. He replied, “No,” and when asked, “Why not?” he replied, “We just didn’t.”
In a lead-up to a question, The Tidewater News stated to the sheriff’s office that it seems like it would be worthwhile to later interview people who were at the party that Pittman left, because their testimony of how she appeared and behaved and their possible knowledge of whether or not she was drinking would have been operating in closer proximity to the time of the crash than that of Fuller and White, since Pittman did not return to the scene until at least three hours after the crash.
In interviews conducted by a private investigator hired by the Lees and also in depositions, multiple people who attended the party said Pittman was consuming alcohol.
Elani Jackson affirmed in her April 23, 2021, deposition that she was furious about the way things were handled by everyone, relevant to the crash, and she testified to Pittman being drunk and to Pittman having told her that she had taken six to eight hits from a Dab Pen, which risecannabis.com defines as a device that works by heating a cannabis concentrate in order to “vaporize” it.
So Jackson made an anonymous phone call to the sheriff’s office around 7 a.m. the next morning after the crash to let law enforcement know that the driver of the Jeep was heavily impaired. Jackson did this so the sheriff’s office would investigate.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if Fuller could supply any more explanation or reasoning for why no one at the party, including Jackson, was ever interviewed?
“Law enforcement must determine probable cause for an alcohol-related arrest based on the condition of the person at the time of their interaction with law enforcement,” Cobb said.
Cooke conveyed this same point to The Tidewater News along with some additional details.
“I became aware of a potentially fatal crash early that morning when contacted by Sgt. Fuller and encouraged him to obtain a blood sample if it was DUI-related,” Cooke said. “In this case, Ms. Pittman was gone from the scene and thus a blood or breath test was not able to be obtained within the time limits provided for in the Virginia Code.
“My understanding is that she was not impaired when she encountered the officers several hours after the crash, therefore eliminating the opportunity to obtain a sample of her breath or blood to use in a prosecution,” Cooke continued. “I considered the case file when it was completed and provided to me by the sheriff’s office.”
During the April 2021 deposition, Fuller described the nature of the criminal investigation into Pittman relevant to the crash.
“That would be the DUI, the drinking aspect of the crash itself,” he said. “Based on the statements that we got at the time of the crash, the crash was caused by James Lee; therefore, he would have been the one in control of the vehicle at the time. So as far as reckless driving or driving under the influence or anything like that at the time of the crash, it would have been James Lee, not Deana Pittman.”
HIT AND RUN
As the deposition continued, Fuller was asked what type of investigation was done and what steps were taken regarding Pittman’s having left the scene.
“She left,” he said. “Her statement was they couldn’t call out then; however, the crash was reported, and she returned to the scene.”
Harvanek stated in his deposition testimony that he called Porter from the scene of the accident, asking him to come get him.
Fuller testified that he did not know how Porter knew to come get them.
“I don’t know if they were coming down the road and picked them up, if a call was made,” he said. “I do not know.”
He was then asked, “But that would be something important to know regarding the credibility of her statement, right?”
Fuller replied, “I only had her statement and Hunter Bryant’s statement at the time.”
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office why Pittman was not charged with hit and run the day of the crash due to having left the scene.
Cobb said, “Deputies consulted with the commonwealth’s attorney in reference to this incident on the day of the incident. Based on witness statements and the scene of the crash, the investigating deputies decided not to pursue charges against anyone at that time.”
The Tidewater News asked Cooke what caused him to change his decision from not charging Pittman with anything to bringing the class 5 felony charge against her.
“After my first interaction with the Lees, I referred them back to the sheriff’s office to discuss the investigation and address any concerns they might have,” he said. “Until I was contacted by the Lees via their attorney some time later, I understood that the Lees and Ms. Pittman were on good terms and that James Lee V had caused the accident, which resulted in his own death. It had been alleged that he grabbed the steering wheel when he lost his balance as he sat down abruptly after standing up in the open-top vehicle.
“Later upon additional consultation with the Lees and their lawyer, I determined it would be appropriate to bring the charge for leaving the scene of the accident,” he said. “My analysis was and still is that Ms. Pittman’s leaving the scene after the accident, while a callous crime, did not contribute to the death of James Lee V.”
INTERACTIONS WITH THE COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY
At the sentencing hearing, Jamie Lee said Fuller and White went to Cooke and asked him not to take the Lees’ case.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if Fuller went to Cooke and asked him not to bring charges against Pittman.
“No,” White said. “Mr. Cooke was aware of the incident the morning that it occurred. Once the investigation was complete, the evidence was presented to Mr. Cooke, and at that time, Mr. Cooke agreed that there was not enough evidence to charge Ms. Pittman with any criminal actions.
“Mr. Cooke’s opinion of the crash did not change until there was a change in what the witnesses reported to the sheriff’s office and what was testified to in the deposition,” White continued. “At no time did Sgt. Fuller, or anyone else at this office, request that criminal charges should not be obtained on Ms. Pittman nor request that the criminal charges that were ultimately obtained on Ms. Pittman be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.”
At the sentencing hearing, Jamie Lee said Fuller refused to draw Pittman’s blood despite being instructed to do so by Cooke, and Lee said he had a sworn statement from his lawyer saying Cooke gave this instruction.
The Tidewater News asked Cooke if he ever asked Fuller or anyone to draw Pittman’s blood.
“In my phone conversation with Sgt. Fuller the night of the crash, I encouraged him to obtain a blood sample if the crash proved to be a fatality and alcohol was a factor,” Cooke said. “I am confident he would have done so had it been indicated by the facts at the scene of the investigation. Ms. Pittman showed no signs of impairment when Sgt. Fuller encountered her several hours later. In the absence of probable cause, a search warrant for Ms. Pittman’s blood was not an option.”
In his deposition testimony, Fuller said, “As far as the alcohol goes or anything like that, believe me, I rack my brain. That’s one of the things I’m big in at the sheriff’s office, as I have more DUI arrests than anybody at the office. If there was any way at all possible that I felt that I could have charged her with an alcohol-related offense as far as driving goes, she would have been charged. Myself and Detective White, we racked our brains beside the road, and I had nothing as far as that goes.”
THE MISSED DEADLINE
At the sentencing hearing, Jamie Lee said he received a call from Randall letting him know that Bush had made a motion to have the case thrown out of court because the commonwealth’s attorney’s office had not sent them the proper paperwork.
“This all happened at the time Mr. Cooke was out of work with a detached retina and the courthouse was being temporarily moved,” Lee said. “Jack advised us to accept a plea agreement from Mr. Bush to have (Deana’s) charges reduced from felony hit and run to a misdemeanor of reckless driving, with the admission of alcohol and speed being a factor, which we did because of his advice. No justice here.”
The Tidewater News asked Cooke if there was any information he could share to confirm, clarify or correct that record of events.
“I did miss a deadline to file a list of witnesses with the defense attorney,” he said. “At about the same time I did have an eye problem, which has been repaired. The missing of the deadline, and every mistake made in my office, is my responsibility. It was a technical violation which in my estimation would not have adversely impacted the outcome of the case. It could have resulted in a continuance or perhaps necessitated a Nolle Prosse, which is legal speak for a dismissal without prejudice. Had that been necessary, I would have returned another indictment and proceeded to trial on the felony charge.
“So there is no misunderstanding, the defense attorney had full access to witness subpoenas filed in the clerk’s office as a matter of public record and had a full understanding of the case,” Cooke continued. “There was no attempt to conceal the identity of witnesses from the defense, most or all of whom had been deposed in connection with a civil case brought by the Lees.”
Cooke stated that he was not party to the Lees’ discussions with their civil lawyer, but the ethics rules prohibit him from discussing a case with a represented party without the consent of their attorney.
“The framework of the plea agreement in this case was proposed to me by the Lees through their attorney,” Cooke said. “As mentioned at the sentencing hearing, it was indicated to me that they did not wish to ruin Ms. Pittman’s life and did not want to saddle her with a felony conviction.
“I made minor amendments and additions to their proposal and made the offer, independently believing it to be an appropriate disposition in the case while still being perfectly comfortable with the felony charge had she declined to accept the offer,” he added.
He noted that part of the agreement required Pittman to accept that her consumption of alcohol and speed contributed to the crash.
“That was very important to the Lees for their own reasons, as was a letter of apology from Ms. Pittman,” Cooke said. “The jail sentence was left to the court’s discretion with an upper limit of six months to serve under the agreement.”
He later added, “Had the facts of the case been different, for example if Ms. Pittman had been demonstrably intoxicated and arrested within the relevant period, that would not have mandated a manslaughter charge. We would still have to establish that her intoxication is what caused the crash. In this case, the issue of proving causation remained problematic throughout.”
INTERNAL INVESTIGATION OF FULLER
Jamie Lee shared at the sentencing hearing how he and Sherry made an appointment with Sheriff Josh A. Wyche Sr. The crash took place nearly two months before Wyche was elected and three-and-a-half months before he took office, but the Lees went to him because he was the leader of the office as of Jan. 1, 2020.
They brought forth eight accusations against Fuller, all of which have been alluded to in the previous sections of this three-part story. Jamie Lee said Wyche responded three weeks later, exonerating Fuller in reference to all of their accusations, citing some of the information provided by the sheriff’s and commonwealth’s attorney’s offices in different sections of this story.
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office a few questions in reference to an internal investigation into Fuller and his performance relevant to the Sept. 15, 2019, crash investigation.
Cobb said, “Our office does not release information relating to personnel or internal or administrative investigations.”
Near the end of his statement at the sentencing hearing, Jamie Lee said to Judge Sandwich, “Your honor, the legal system has failed us. Deana will get hardly any jail time even if you sentence her for the maximum amount the law allows.”
In their written impact statement submitted to Cooke, the Lee family shared their grievances with Pittman and her behavior and then added, “We are just as mad with Deputy Fuller because of the decisions that he made the night of James’ accident and the days that followed.”
Cooke expressed a contrasting view.
“This investigation and prosecution were not perfect,” he said. “Nor were they done poorly. Investigations and prosecutions, like people, are never perfect. I encourage you to look at Sgt. Fuller’s record of achievements relevant to DUI enforcement in particular. He has received awards year after year for his aggressive enforcement actions. In fairness to him and his agency, that should be spelled out. What I see is a sheriff and his entire department working very hard to serve this community, frequently under adverse conditions, and they are doing it well.”
The Tidewater News asked the sheriff’s office if it was its position that its investigation into the Sept. 15, 2019, crash was thorough and complete and that the Lees did not need to invest resources to mount their own investigation into it.
“The necessary information needed to complete this investigation was obtained by the deputies who worked this crash,” Cobb said.
Jamie Lee concluded his letter at Pittman’s sentencing hearing by saying, “In closing your honor, my family begs you to give Deana the maximum sentence allowed by law and give us a small portion of the justice that we should be getting as well as some closure to this nightmare that has gone on for over three-and-a-half years.”
After Sandwich did give Pittman the maximum sentence allowed by law, Randall told The Tidewater News, “There was justice for the Lee family today. It wasn’t perfect justice.”
Cooke concluded his comments to The Tidewater News in March by saying, “I recognize that this is a case of significant interest to the community, and I empathize with the Lees for the loss of their son, who died much too soon. At the same time, I am glad there has been some accountability for Ms. Pittman’s actions. These alcohol-related tragedies are entirely avoidable. It is my hope that the attention brought to this matter will encourage young and old alike to act responsibly while consuming alcohol.”