Rapid-fire decisions in a traffic death investigation resulted in police not testing to see if a suspect was drunk within hours of a hit-and-run that killed a 42-year-old mother.
Through witnesses in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Wednesday, District Attorney General Bill Cox and Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston detailed that Jeremy Allen Lane “reeked of alcohol,” had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes shortly after the Dec. 23, 2009, incident.
Jeremy Lane reenters the courtroom after a short recess Tuesday. The grand jury trial of Lanes, who is accused of vehicular homicide in the 2009 death of Susan Wood, a Unum employee, began Tuesday afternoon with opening statements and the testimonies of the first witnesses for the state.Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Prosecutors allege that Lane, 26, left work at Chattanooga Billiard Club downtown just after 7 a.m. that day and, as he drove toward the North Shore, struck Susan Wood at the intersection of Walnut and Fourth streets as she was walking to her job at Unum. Wood, who had two children, died within hours.
Lane fled in his red 1995 Nissan 240SX sports car without stopping, police said. His car was recovered later with a dented hood and smashed-in passenger-side windshield at an apartment complex on Dallas Road.
On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to charges of filing a false report and leaving the scene of an accident, but pleaded not guilty to DUI and vehicular homicide. A jury comprising of nine women and four men is hearing testimony on those charges.
Police say that to cover up his involvement, within minutes of the hit-and-run, Lane concocted a story that he’d been carjacked.
Store clerk Rochelle Blakey was one of the first people to see Lane after the incident, when he walked into the Kangaroo Express on Dallas Road while talking with a 911 operator on a cell phone.
“He asked the address of the store and told me he just got robbed,” Blakey said. “He was intoxicated. He had a horrified look on his face; he was sweating and choppy, but he wasn’t crying.”
Store camera footage shown Wednesday in the courtroom showed Lane buying chips and a citrus drink while talking with a 911 operator. About 20 minutes later, Chattanooga police Officer Brian Smith responded to Lane’s carjacking call.
But Lane’s attorney, Dan Ripper, repeatedly asked how none of the three police officers who came in contact with Lane in the hours after the incident had performed any type of sobriety test on him.
“You thought he was intoxicated. You knew he’d been driving a car, correct?” Ripper asked Smith.
“From what he had told me, yes,” Smith said.
“So you didn’t perform any of the field sobriety tests?” Ripper asked.
“There was no need to; he was the victim of a crime,” Smith replied.
A short time later, Chattanooga property crimes investigators interviewed Lane about the carjacking.
“He smelled so strong of intoxicant that when he answered questions, I asked him to direct his breath away from me,” Investigator Josh Meyer testified.
It was during questioning on the carjacking, Meyer said, that police began to suspect Lane was lying.
Lane told Meyer he’d taken a six-pack of beer from his work and drank it in the parking lot with a female co-worker during an after-hours party at the Billiards Club. But video footage from the club doesn’t show Lane leaving the club until 7:02 a.m. and manager Ashley Windham testified Wednesday that he didn’t see Lane drink alcohol that morning.
Information that a car matching Lane’s had been involved in a hit-and-run downtown was coming over the officers’ radios, so Officer Kenneth Hogans, a traffic investigator, interviewed Lane near the scene of the alleged carjacking. Hogans testified that he talked one-on-one with Lane in his patrol car, challenged his carjacking story and asked him to tell the truth about what had happened.
In footage from Hogans’ patrol-car camera, he offered Lane two choices — tell the truth or submit to a blood alcohol test.
“I’m not going to do either one of those because my car was stolen,” Lane responded.
Lane stuck with his story, even chuckling at some of Hogans’ questions.
Ripper challenged why Hogans didn’t check to see if Lane was intoxicated once he thought Lane was drunk and connected to Wood’s death.
Hogans said he consulted with his supervisor, Sgt. Albert Tallant, who decided not to test Lane. Though the officer suspected Lane was drunk, Hogans said on the witness stand that he didn’t have probable cause at the time to test him.
Hogans was suspended by the police department for two days when he did not show up for an earlier hearing in the Lane case, but he testified that he had not been subpoenaed for the hearing and the suspension was trumped up because of the profile of the case.
“I was a pawn in a political game, and I suffered the consequences,” Hogans said. “I got punished for doing my job.”
Hamilton County court records show Lane has speeding and traffic-related charges dating to 2003. He pleaded guilty to a 2004 DUI and received a suspended sentence.
A 2006 public intoxication charge was dismissed, and he pleaded guilty to a separate public intoxication charge in January 2007 and received 30 days in jail, records show.
The trial will resume today at 9:30 a.m. in Judge Don Poole’s courtroom.
Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...