District attorney accepts plea deal; Investigators say no evidence Jeep struck mo-ped in 2006 incident
By Sarah Nagem
Investigators found no evidence that the Jeep six people were riding in struck Michael Brown’s mo-ped the night he died in 2006, the district attorney said in court Thursday.
Rowan District Attorney Bill Kenerly said that’s why he agreed to let three of the people riding in the Jeep that night plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid jail time.
Brandon Heathcliff Lowery, 23, Alstin Lee Vanderford, 21, and Eric Gregory Taylor, 21, appeared in court Thursday morning.
Lowery and Vanderford each pleaded guilty to one count of death by motor vehicle, a misdemeanor, and leaving the scene of an accident by a passenger, which is a felony.
Taylor, who was driving the Jeep on May 12, 2006, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and felony hit and run.
As part of the deal, Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford each received a sentence of eight to 10 months in jail, but Judge Jim Hardin Jr. suspended the sentence for three years. Unless they get in trouble with the law in the next few years, they will avoid jail time.
The three will be on probation for three years and will be placed on house arrest with electronic monitoring for six months.
If a jury had convicted Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford on the charges they pleaded guilty to on Thursday, they could have each been sentenced to up to 34 months in jail.
Before the plea deal, Lowery and Vanderford faced charges of felony aiding and abetting felonious hit and run by failing to remain at the scene. Taylor had faced an involuntary manslaughter charge.
Three other people in the car that night previously entered plea agreements with the district attorney’s office. In return for their testimony, Patsy Elizabeth Morgan, 21, Rachel Ann Miller, 21, and Derek Ryan Talbert, 23, each face a misdemeanor charge. They have not yet been sentenced.
Kenerly said Thursday he was willing to strike a deal with Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford in part because investigators could not determine that the Jeep struck the mo-ped that night.
Brown, who was a 26-year-old father of three, was driving a scooter on U.S. 52 in the early morning hours when the Jeep approached.
The six defendants told investigators that after some of them had been drinking that night, they went to Wal-Mart to buy eggs and then drove around egging houses. Some of the defendants ó their statements contradict which ones ó threw eggs at Brown’s scooter.
The six people told investigators they heard a thud, like the mo-ped had hit the Jeep, but they did not check on Brown. Instead, they drove to a friend’s house and agreed to not talk about what happened.
Investigators initially thought the accident was a one-vehicle wreck, but the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office exhumed Brown’s body in January 2007 after developing new information. In February 2007, the six suspects turned themselves in.
“Everybody talks about hearing a bump on the right side of the Jeep,” Kenerly said Thursday of the defendants.
But Highway Patrol investigators found no evidence to suggest the mo-ped had struck the vehicle, he said.
“We did not find physical evidence that the helmet hit the Jeep,” Kenerly said. “That remains a mystery.”
Kenerly said investigators determined that Brown had hit the brakes on his scooter as it approached the Jeep from the opposite direction.
“The rear end started to slide to the right,” he said.
Brown then released the brake and crashed, Kenerly said investigators determined.
“He landed on his head, on the back of his head, and that caused the injuries,” Kenerly said.
Before Hardin accepted guilty pleas from Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford, he asked Kenerly if Brown could have survived the accident if he had gotten help.
“His injuries were massive, and I don’t think there’s anything to suggest if he had received immediate medical attention he would have survived,” Kenerly said.
A family’s grief
Brown’s mother said in court Thursday that she needed closure to move on.
“We haven’t had a day of peace since” his death, Elizabeth Brown said through tears.
Diana Delaney, the maternal grandmother of two of Brown’s children, ages 6 and 7, also spoke to Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford.
Delaney said Brown’s 7-year-old son, Matthew, has been angry since his father’s death.
“He doesn’t understand,” Delaney said. “He misses his dad terribly.”
Delaney said when Matthew plays with his dolls, he pretends one is his father and the other is the people who were in the Jeep that night. Matthew lets the father doll fight the other one, she said.
“You at least owe them an apology,” Delaney said of Brown’s children.
Betty Brown, Michael Brown’s grandmother, said her grandson had been left to die in the road “like an animal.”
“These boys have been given another chance to follow their goals and their dreams,” she said of Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford.
“I’d also like to say,” she continued, “Michael will not be able to.”
Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford apologized to Brown’s family on Thursday.
“I played out this conversation in my head probably a million times,” Taylor said.
“All I can say is I’m sorry,” he continued. “I know that doesn’t cut it.”
Taylor told Brown’s family that just as Brown’s son Matthew wants to hit and punch things to release his anger, so does he.
“I pray for you all, that you can forgive me, so one day I can forgive myself,” Taylor said.
Vanderford appeared to get choked up during his remarks to Brown’s family.
“I just want to tell you all that we never meant to harm Mr. Brown,” Vanderford said. “I’m sorry, I really am.”
In response, Elizabeth Brown spoke to Vanderford. “You boys have your life, to go on and be productive,” she told him.
“I’m very sorry,” Vanderford told her. “I know there’s nothing I can do to bring him back. If there was, I would do it.”
Lowery sat with his head in his hand as the judge listed the conditions of his plea agreement. He briefly addressed Brown’s family.
“I’m as sorry as one person can be,” he said.
In addition to being put on probation and house arrest with electronic monitoring, the six defendants have to pay $8,584.88 in restitution. That’s about $1,430 each.
Lowery, Taylor and Vanderford also each have to pay a $1,000 fine, surrender their driver’s licenses, do community service and submit to drug tests.
Hardin ordered Taylor to continue substance abuse treatment at a Salisbury center and to undergo a psychological assessment.
After the hearing, the families of Taylor and Vanderford declined to comment.
Elizabeth Brown talked about the defendants’ plea bargain.
“Pleased? I don’t know,” Brown said. “Like I said, I’m kind of content with myself for now.
“… For some reason, my heart feels relieved.”