Vehicle's black box leads to murder charge
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The car you drive may have one and you may not even know it. Event data recorders collect several pieces of information seconds before a crash such as: speed, brake pressure, and seat belt use.
Troopers were able to take the information inside one of those recorders and show a Myrtle Beach man intentionally drove his truck into the side of a family's car, killing a three-year-old girl inside.
On March 7, 2005, an SUV slammed into the side of a family of four on Highway 544 in Conway. Rita Gainey and her husband Thomas were in the front seats and their eight-year-old son was in the back next to his three-year-old sister, Erica.
"I remember seeing the car traveling at a high rate of speed and I remember telling my husband 'that car's going to hit us,'" said Rita Gainey. "Unfortunately, our car was still hit at such an impact to where it had hit the front side of the driver's door and then basically he just drove over the back side of my car."
The impact killed Rita's daughter instantly.
"I was conscious, but I don't remember a lot of things," said Rita. "My husband said he got out the car and went around and saw Erica and knew that she was dead. He had taken her out of the car and set her to the side so she would not be in our vision."
"The week before we had our car accident, she was actually student of the week. So, she had just learned to write her name and that kind of thing," said Rita. "We were proud of her. She was full of life. She was a little mini me, that's for sure."
The Highway Patrol's group of specialized crash investigators, officially known as the MAIT Team, went to work that night, trying to figure out what went wrong.
"The only thing we had was what was on the scene, which showed great speed, but it doesn't show what the driver was doing within the vehicle," said SCHP Lieutenant Mike Dangerfield.
Dangerfield's investigators started looking into what sent Christopher Jones' Chevy across 4 lanes of traffic into the side of the family's Dodge.
The patrol found the Chevy's event data recorder, a device similar to an airplane black box, and downloaded the data it captured.
"From just the data, we got the vehicle speed and we found out that he was trying to increase his vehicle speed," said Dangerfield.
The recorder shows exactly how fast Jones was driving and whether he applied any brakes, seconds before impact.
Troopers used the data to create as animation that showed a real-life reconstruction of the impact.
Jones was driving 99 miles an hour, the Chevy's maximum speed.
"You can see just before impact, he's actually trying to speed up. He's giving it more throttle," said Dangerfield. "The speed limit through there, I think, is actually 45 miles an hour."
Troopers knew the crash was intentional and dug deeper. The MAIT team found out that just before the crash Christopher Jones, a paraplegic, and his girlfriend, who was in the vehicle with him, had formed a suicide pact.
But, instead of killing themselves, the pair killed three-year-old Erica Bellamy.
Using the black box, the patrol did something it's never been able to do before. "We were able to get a charge of murder," said Dangerfield.
One year later, Christopher Jones pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
The newspaper from that day shows solicitor Greg Hembree holding Jones' black box recorder, testifying about the story it told.
This case, troopers say, set a precedent in crash investigations in South Carolina.
"In the past, we had to rely on what drivers or occupants told us... or independent witnesses," said Dangerfield. "Now we have data that we can look at."
Reporter: "Had the Highway Patrol not been there and able to use the technology they were able to use, what would have been different with your case than where you are now?"
Rita: "I don't think it may have been as strong a case... again, that kind of spelled everything out. You can run, but you can't hide. There's information that's going to be there that can validate your story, validate the facts."
Now, eight years since the accident and a killer's plea, the family continues to live with what happened. Walker, who was sitting beside his sister that night, says losing his Erica has motivated him.
"I will always do everything for her, just knowing that she's up there looking down on me saying: 'Hey, that's my brother, look what he's doing now,'" said Walker. "I'm proud to call her... my Guardian Angel, because everywhere I go, she's there. I know that."
"When she walked into the room, you had to smile," said Rita. "She just had that kind of impact on people and I think she would have grown up to be a very successful young lady."
Today, arguments over privacy concerns, how insurance companies use the information and how the data inside the black boxes are used in courtrooms are driving new laws concerning the devices.
If this data and how you were driving becomes part of a lawsuit, a subpoena could force you to turn your black box over to authorities.
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