Court date set in Crowley hit-and-run death
A year-long investigation into the hit-and-run death Joshua Crowley will soon move forward, according to the special prosecutor handling the case.
Crowley was found dead in a field off Potter Road in Wesley Chapel last Easter morning, April 8, 2012. The next day, the N.C. Highway Patrol identified 17-year-old Tiffany Brooke Ashcraft of Matthews as the driver of the silver 2011 Lexus RX350 investigators allege hit Crowley.
The case was handed over to Sarah Garner, a traffic safety resource prosecutor with the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. Thursday, she confirmed she is working with the N.C. Highway Patrol investigating trooper and Crowley’s family about the case’s progress.
She also confirmed a tentative court date of April 17 in Union County. The full details of that night will be released in court and not sooner, Garner said.
The NCHP confirmed that Crowley, 22, left a party at 4808 Antioch Church Road on foot some time before 10 p.m. on April 7, 2012. Post-mortum tests found Crowley had a blood alcohol level of .13. No tests were performed on Ashcraft. The family’s attorney instructed her to not agree to NCHP questioning.
Though the Highway Patrol stated Ashcraft was the driver, a year passed with no charges filed. Crowley’s friends were dismayed at what appeared to be inaction. They held protests and made T-shirts to memorialize Crowley. Facebook pages appeared demanding justice. But the months wore on with little news about a completed investigation or charges against the driver.
The frustrations led to arguments, both in person and by email. It spilled onto social media, where two distinct groups argued about that night’s events and who was at fault, the SUV’s driver or the drunk pedestrian.
The Highway Patrol said little about its investigation. The silence lead to accusations of corruption or discrimination because Crowley was gay.
“I’m sorry for the Crowley family’s loss but I refuse to speculate on where this matter is headed,” Union County District Attorney Pat “Trey” Robison wrote in a July 10, 2012 email. “Further, I am not intimidated by people making false and slanderous comments. I will do my job as the law requires.”
Robison went on to say that until the Highway Patrol finished the investigation and handed it over to the D.A.’s office to prosecute, he would not speculate on appropriate charges. When NCHP did submit the file to the district attorney’s office, it was sent back for more investigation.
Local news media and the Enquirer-Journal checked with Sgt. Mark Leach regularly last year, asking for updates on the investigation. He encouraged the public to be patient while troopers finished their work.
“It’s just taken a lot of work. A lot of police work has gone into this,” Leach said. A thorough investigation looking at all aspects of the accident took hours of police-work.
But there is not much Leach is allowed to say even now that all the investigation is complete. Criminal investigations are not public record under state law. Law enforcement can withhold any information from the public their detectives believe will compromise their ability to find out the facts of a case. Some information becomes public record when criminal charges are brought. To date, none have been filed against anyone. And as with any criminal charge, Ashcraft is innocent until proven guilty in court.
However, there are some things about investigations, like search warrants, that are public record unless a judge orders them sealed. Trooper Randal L. Braswell applied for and received a search warrant for the Lexus SUV on April 30, 2012, a full 23 days after the collision. In the application, Braswell states the search was for any evidence of use or purchase of alcohol or controlled substances. Braswell also searched for any electronic equipment on the SUV that could have collected data about the crash.
“It is pertinent to collect all light bulbs and to take detailed measurements of the 2011 Lexus RX350 to provide a complete and thorough vehicle inspection,” the search warrant states.
No inventory of seized items are attached to the warrant. Typically, a warrant without an attached inventory means the officer seized nothing in the search.
In January, the Enquirer-Journal reported that Robison handed the case to the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. Executive director Peg Doror said it was because of a possible conflict of interest.
“I believe that the conflict was that the defense attorney is the former DA and was the DA’s former boss,” Dorer said in January.
Ashcraft is represented by former Union County District Attorney Kenneth Honeycutt. For six years during his tenure, Robison worked as an assistant district attorney. Honeycutt also donated $2,500 to Robison’s political campaign last year, according to the N.C. Board of Elections.
Robison has refused to talk with Enquirer-Journal reporters since October, so his exact reasons for passing on the case is unknown.
The case goes to court
While what happened last Easter is still under wraps, Leach said Garner will soon begin prosecuting the case.
“We’ve been in conversation with the Conference of DAs about the case,” Leach said. “We handed it over to them and so far they’ve not asked for any additional information.”
Garner is a special prosecutor with the Conference, available to advise district attorneys on case law or prosecute traffic cases. In 2010, while she was an assistant district attorney in the 13th Prosecutorial District, Garner was named a Hero by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She co-created a DWI court targeting drunk driving in Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties.
The tentative April 17 court date in Union County is the first step in the year-long investigation into the accident that killed Crowley. She has read the case file and is prepared to begin motions, but she would say little about what happened on April 7, 2012.
“There’s just so much hurt and heartbreak in this, I just don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on it until it goes to court,” Garner said.
But she did provide a glimpse into why the investigation took a year when some hit-and-run fatalities result in immediate criminal charges.
“Every criminal case is different,” Garner said. “Some cases just take longer because of the situations.”
In some accident investigations, law enforcement can quickly gather the evidence needed to prosecute a pedestrian fatality. Often the vehicle and driver are still on the scene. If it is a hit-and-run, Troopers search for the driver and vehicle and collect evidence when and if the vehicle is found. Investigators can collect physical evidence from the body shortly after death. There are sometimes witnesses, driver statements, prior records or evidence of intoxication.
But some accidents are not as easily investigated, especially if days pass before law enforcement can examine all the evidence. To establish exactly what happened, investigators must perform accident reconstructions, interviews and searches. And until they have all pieces of the puzzle, they cannot know what criminal charge fits the situation, Garner said.
“You don’t want to go to court on one charge only to find out something important to the case a few months later when you can’t go back and change anything,” Garner said. “You want to go to court with as much information as possible.”
Much of the past year was spent recreating the accident, Garner said. Experts use all the available data investigators recorded at the scene to reconstruct exactly what happened. The state employs excellent accident investigators to examine everything from the points of view of the driver, victim and witnesses, she said.
“They do great work, but its slow work,” Garner said.