Yearlong investigation led to guilty pleas

Apr. 18, 2013 @ 08:58 PM

A little over a year after Joshua Crowley’s body was found along Potter Road, the case was resolved in court.

N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper R.L. Braswell lead the long and complicated investigation.

“It was a hard case to prove,” he said.

There is no short explanation of why the case took so long to be heard in court, Braswell said. Hours of work poring over evidence and law went into the investigation. Troopers collected as much evidence as possible from the scene once Crowley’s body was found. They knew the type of car, the speed, an approximate time. And once the witnesses came forward, they had a description of the driver. When all that hit the media, the dad called in saying his daughter, Tiffany Ashcraft, was likely the driver.

But several things made case harder. The family hired an attorney almost immediately. Invoking her Fifth Amendment rights, Ashcraft refused to give a statement to investigators. All communication went through Kenneth Honeycutt, her defense attorney. That camp repeated one assertion — Ashcraft thought she hit a deer.

The state’s felony hit-and-run laws require prosecutors to prove only that the driver should have known they hit a person but did not stop to assist.

“For felony hit-and-run, we had to disprove that there was no way to tell if it was a deer or a person,” Braswell said.

With few witnesses and no driver statement, investigators had nothing but scene evidence to build a case on. They took tissue samples, the stuff in and on the SUV, text messages from Ashcraft’s phone that night, call records, anything they could think of to establish a timeline. Troopers interviewed people who were at the party with Crowley that night and character witnesses for Ashcraft.

“Though we identified the driver and vehicle, we had to go through every aspect of evidence to see if we even had a case,” Braswell said.

Troopers and an accident reconstruction team from Winston-Salem did exhaustive tests. They used a Lexus just like the one Ashcraft was driving, even down to identical headlights. They recreated the scene on the dark road with a trooper driving the Lexus toward the collision spot. Investigators alternated using a trooper dressed in the same kind of clothes Crowley wore that night and a deer mannequin. They took video of the approach from different angles with headlights set on both bright and dim. They recorded the distance away that a driver could discern the form of a deer from that of a person and how far it would have taken for the SUV to come to a full stop.

“It was a lengthy investigation. While we’re working on one case, we have other obligations to tend to, so we unfortunately can’t just work on one case until it’s finished,” he said.

Bringing the reconstruction team down from Winston-Salem took planning. It took time for the DA’s office to examine the case file. It took time for Ashcraft’s attorney to respond to questions. And in between all that were other fatal accidents Braswell had to investigate.

When the reconstruction was done, it left little doubt about what the driver saw.

“To us, it was very discernible what had been hit,” Braswell said. “We found that, by using the evidence we gathered and the reconstruction, it would have been apparent that it wasn’t a deer.”

While that was enough to build a criminal case around, the NCHP does not bring the charges, Braswell said. The investigating agency does the leg-work. The prosecutors decide the formal charge based on what they think can be proven in court.

“If the case isn’t cut-and-dried, you present everything you have to the DA and see what they’re comfortable with charging,” Braswell said.

At times, that means a lesser charge prosecutors are confident they could prove. The DA’s office sent the case file back to the NCHP for more investigation. Meanwhile, troopers asked help from the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys special traffic prosecutor. The day Union County District Attorney Pat “Trey” Robison planned to file criminal charges, the NCCDA agreed to handle the case.

“I have nothing but praise for our district attorney’s office,” Braswell said. “They do an incredible job. But Ms. Garner has so much experience and expertise in prosecuting cases like this. I think it worked out the best possible way for her to handle it.”

Special prosecutor Sarah Garner took over. It took some time for her to familiarize herself with the case. She negotiated the plea deal between Honeycutt and Crowley’s family, coming to compromise both sides agreed on.

Part of the sentence is an order for Ashcraft to wear an alcohol monitor for six months. The whys of that order was a discussion between Garner and Honeycutt, not the Highway Patrol. Braswell said he was not told why the monitor was part of the punishment. Since Ashcraft never submitted to questioning, Braswell said there was no opportunity to ask if she was drinking.

“Today in court was the first time I’d ever seen her in person,” he said.

When the investigation began, Braswell said he told the family that it would take a long time. But he promised them a full investigation that examined every piece of evidence. The Highway Patrol spent hours testing, recording, measuring and researching to compile what Braswell believed to be the best possible analsys of the accident.

Crowley’s family was patient and understanding. There are few people who could not grieve this tragedy with them, or appreciate the worry the Ashcrafts felt for their daughter.

“I have one child that’s about Ms. Ashcraft’s age and one child that’s Josh’s age,” Braswell. “As a parent, it’s hard not to think of them and think about what these parents and families are going through.”

The plea deal is a suitable punishment for the accident, he said.

“Obviously, she was scared,” Braswell said. “I never talked to her, never interviewed her and never got to ask what she felt or what she did. But I think she’s just a kid. A young, teenage kid who made a mistake. And now she has to live with that mistake for the rest of her life.”