Former Fort Eustis soldier found guilty in crash that killed 2, maimed 3
By Ashley Kelly | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: March 31, 2013
HAMPTON — Albert Brin regrets sending his daughter thousands of miles away to college, only for her to be killed in a wrong-way wreck a few months later.
Lorenzo Case says he will never meet the woman his granddaughter would have become — she was killed in the same wreck.
Then there are the crash survivors: Emani Wade, Laval Noel and Deno Rich.
Nineteen-year-old Wade's back is held together by four metal screws. Rich, 23, will need a knee replacement by 25. Noel, 24, must use crutches to walk because his knees are crushed.
They are five lives linked by a tragic crash that killed two Christopher Newport University freshmen and injured Wade, Rich and Noel on Dec. 4, 2011. Each testified last week during the trial of Jesse Evans Jr.
A jury found Evans guilty Tuesday in the deaths of Sierra Smith, 19, and Kimberley Brin, 17. The jury recommended that he spend 26 years in prison. Evans, 35, was found guilty of two counts of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, and three counts of maiming by DUI. Evans was an army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Eustis at the time of the fatal crash. He was recently given an Other Than Honorable Discharge, according to a Fort Eustis spokeswoman.
Evans was traveling the wrong way on Interstate 64 when he struck the Ford Taurus that Brin, Smith, Noel, Wade and Rich were traveling in. Evans was traveling eastbound in a Chevy Tahoe in the westbound lane when he struck their car head on, according to state police. The 2:49 a.m. crash occurred in Hampton near the J. Clyde Morris Boulevard exit.
Evans' blood-alcohol level was 0.26 two hours after the crash, according to a forensic toxicologist. The legal limit in Virginia is 0.08. It was the fourth time Evans had been charged with DUI since 2004. One of the charges stemmed from a Newport News incident that occurred three months before the fatal crash. The other two occurred while Evans was stationed in Germany and Hawaii.
"Sierra Smith was our third grandchild … she was preparing to take her place in this world," said Case, Smith's grandfather.
Brin, Smith and Wade were roommates at CNU. Brin and Smith had already started to get to know each other over the Internet before the semester started. Brin wanted to be a lawyer. Smith wanted to be a teacher.
The roommates wanted to relax before finals started. Brin had met Noel a few weeks earlier at a gathering at William and Mary. She had contacted him Dec. 3 to see if he wanted to hang out, according to court testimony. They decided to go to a club in Virginia Beach.
They headed back to Newport News around 2 a.m., according to court testimony. Wade testified that she noticed Noel was falling asleep and she tapped him on the shoulder to wake up. Wade says he rolled down the window and turned up the music. Noel testified that the last thing he remembered seeing before the crash was the J. Clyde Morris exit sign. Rich testified that he was asleep when the crash occurred. Wade says after she tapped Noel to tell him to wake up, she looked down at her phone to see if she had a new text message. A second later the crash occurred.
Smith, of Newport News, died at the scene. Brin, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, died a day later. Noel, Wade and Rich, were each taken to the hospital in serious condition.
"Our family has not been able to move beyond her tragic death … no one wants to believe what happened. Our family will never be the same," Case said.
A father's regret
It's tough for Albert Brin to get out of bed.
"It's like trying to suck in air," he said. "Right now it's like, 'What is the reason to get up? Why do it?' "
He says he not only carries the weight of his 17-year-old daughter, Kimberley Brin, being killed, but he also blames himself for forcing her to attend school at CNU.
"I dragged her to Virginia because I thought it was safer, and I have to live with that decision," Brin told the jury Tuesday. "This affects everything in my life. I'm not going to see her in a wedding dress. I will never have grandchildren from her, because somebody chose to do the wrong thing."
Kimberley Brin, the younger of two daughters, grew up in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Brin says his daughter was accepted to several colleges across the country, including one in Miami that she was especially interested in. He says he thought Virginia was a better choice, to avoid the party atmosphere of Miami.
"I chose Virginia, because I think it's safe … I chose to send her away for a better life and now I don't have her," he testified.
Brin described his daughter as the son he never had. He was not only her father, but her coach. He says she was a skilled athlete in softball, volleyball and diving. At 14 she represented St. Thomas in the junior Olympic team in volleyball, he says.
Throughout the trial Brin said he doubted he would feel anything after it was over. He wanted Evans' to be punished, but even punishment would not bring him peace. He said he didn't know if anything ever would. After the verdict, Brin said he was glad Evans' was found guilty, but the outcome didn't lessen his pain.
"My children were my life and right now I don't know what to do with my life," he said. "It's a struggle."
Wade returned to CNU almost a year after the fatal crash.
She use to be athletic. She use to play basketball, but now she can't. It's a struggle for Wade to walk across campus to class, her mother, Rose Lee, told a jury last week. She can't use a backpack to hold her books because the weight is too great. Lee said her daughter is just beginning to lift more than two to three pounds.
Wade was the only one who was able to get out of the mangled car the morning of the crash. With a broken collarbone she forced her way out the backseat and crawled along the highway seeking help. She managed to tell a trooper that two of her friends were dead inside the car.
"I sat on the divider. He told me help was coming," Wade testified. "It felt like an hour, it was so cold."
She watched as paramedics lifted Brin onto a stretcher.
"I asked them to take me away," Wade said. "I didn't want to see any more."
Wade has had five blood transfusions since the crash, she testified. She suffered two broken ribs, a collapsed lung and damage to her small intestines and aorta. There are four metal screws in her back.
"Basically I was broken in half," Wade testified. "They had to put my back, back together."
Wade, Noel and Rich all testified during the trial about the severity of their injuries. Ford Taurus driver Noel and front seat passenger Rich were trapped in the car.
"I woke up to them cutting me out the car…I remember yelling and screaming, then after that just a blur," Rich testified.
Rich and Noel have both been unable to work since the crash. They each have metal plates throughout their bodies. Rich's injuries included knee damage, a broken pelvis, forearm and shoulder blade. He spent four months in physical therapy. A doctor recently told Rich that he will need a knee replacement by the time he is 25 or 26.
Wade and Rich seem unscathed by the crash physically, because their injuries are not evident until they point them out.
Noel can't hide the scars the crash left.
He walks on crutches because both of his knees were shattered in the wreck. He broke his hip, ribs and arm, and he had to have a skin graft on his left leg. He can't bend his right arm. Before the crash, Noel had a severe speech impediment, which causes him to slur his words. His mother testified that the crash was a setback for her son who had learned to accept his speech difficulties.
"Laval does have a speech disorder," his mother Tracey Noel testified. "I have watched my son grow to accept it and move forward … I feel like I'm watching him all over again trying to accept what has taken place in his life. It's hard to see my son struggle all over again."
On deaf ears
The morning of the crash, Evans suffered head, chest and abdominal injuries. An emergency room doctor testified that Evans' speech was slurred and he appeared to be confused.
Dr. Daniel Munn, a trauma surgeon at Riverside Regional Medical Center, testified that he gave Evans several tests to see if his behavior was caused by a head injury or intoxication. Munn said he found no signs of injuries and concluded that Evans was intoxicated. Munn recommended that Evans "seek alcohol abuse counseling." Evans stayed in the hospital for one night.
Evans didn't testify during the four-day trial, but he took the witness stand before the jury deliberated over sentencing.
Defense attorney Ron Smith asked Evans to tell the jurors about himself. Evans told them he was born in Galveston, Texas in 1978. Smith began to ask him about his military experience, but Evans stopped him.
"To be honest … I don't feel right with that … Yes, I've been in the military for 10 years. I just don't feel comfortable … To the families that have been affected, I'm a God-fearing man. I pray every day something happens for those families to forgive me ... I just never imagined anything like this would happen in my life. I just ask the families for forgiveness."
Brin said he didn't believe Evans' apology and thought it was a "defense tactic."
"If he was really sorry, he should have just pleaded guilty and avoided all this emotion and stress," he said.