‘There was no high-speed chase’
An eyewitness and first responder to the May 23 fatal accident at River Road disputes reported claims that Trooper JD Goodnight was in hot pursuit at the time.
Terry Johnson sports his Greensboro Grasshoppers cap. He is a season-ticket holder. (photo by Ogi Overman)
Terry Johnson knows the smell of death all too well. As a combat Ranger in the US Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War, he is better acquainted with death than he’d like to be. More fortunate than many of his combat brethren, though, he went on to live a productive, successful life, normal in every measurable way.
But that aura of normalcy was shattered the morning of May 23. In the blink of an eye, a pleasant Sunday morning drive down Business 85 turned into a nightmare rivaling anything he had seen in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. It fell to Terry Johnson to hold the hand and stroke the forehead of another human being as she lay dying.
Yet, in the process, the 63-year-old combat veteran has drawn a metaphorical target on his back that seems destined to put him in the crosshairs of public and media scrutiny as surely as if he were a sniper’s prey.
Most central North Carolina residents are aware of the tragic events of that morning. Sandra Allmond, a 55-year-old Thomasville grandmother, and Taylor Strange, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Jamestown Elementary School, lost their lives when Allmond turned into the path of the Dodge Charger being driven by NC State Highway Patrol trooper JD Goodnight. Two of Strange’s classmates at Jamestown Elementary, Elijah Allmond and Steven Strange, were seriously injured but survived, while Goodnight was treated and released.
Allmond, taking the kids home after attending service at First Pentecostal Church in High Point, was making a left turn from the northbound lane of Business 85 at the light at River Road. Goodnight, a 10year veteran of the patrol was, according to all published reports, was involved in a high-speed chase pursuing a blue Buick Skylark that he had clocked doing 80 mph in the 55 mph zone. His vehicle was said to have reached a top speed of 125 mph before slowing to 95 at the point of impact. The two vehicles collided in the intersection, severing Allmond’s Honda Accord in two, with the front end landing, according to an accident reconstruction team, 137 feet away and Goodnight’s vehicle coming to rest in the woods 225 feet after the crash.
But while the two vehicles wound up a couple of hundred feet apart, the two versions of events leading up to the fatal crash are miles and miles apart. Media reports have maintained from the outset that the trooper was in hot pursuit, initially chasing a Pontiac Grand Am but later changed to a Buick Skylark. Reports the following day added that the vehicle was occupied by four black males.
Eyewitness and first responder Terry Johnson tells a radically different story. In an exclusive interview with the Jamestown News, Johnson claimed that there was no high-speed chase, no Buick Skylark, no four passengers.
“The only four passengers he saw were in that Honda,” said Johnson, “and two of them died.”
Johnson, who lives with his wife in an upscale neighborhood near Jamestown, related a detailed, explicit, moment-by-moment sequence of events leading up to the crash that, at best, calls into question Trooper Goodnight’s explanation and, at worst, completely contradicts it.
Johnson’s version is as follows: He pulled onto Business 85 at the Vickrey Chapel Road interchange, heading south toward High Point at approximately 11:40 a.m. that Sunday. Just as the acceleration lane ends there is a paved crossover in the median, where he spotted a highway patrol vehicle. Shortly thereafter there is a sign warning that an intersection is one-half mile ahead. The patrolman had pulled in behind him by the time he passed that sign, and both proceeded at 55 mph.
“I figured he was running my license tags,” said Johnson, “because he pulled right in behind me and stayed there.”
There is another sign a quarter mile from the intersection, this one with two flags and a flashing yellow light. There are also large white letters on the pavement saying the intersection is 1,000 feet away. This is where Johnson claimed that the patrolman pulled out from behind him into the left lane and immediately accelerated. Approximately four car-lengths in front of him, he turned on his blue lights.
“From the time he pulled out, he probably had three to four seconds before impact,” estimated Johnson. “He did try to slow down, but by then it was way too late. The Honda was already out in the middle of the intersection. She never knew what hit her.”
Obviously, this version does not comport with a high-speed chase.
“The one thing that’s been consistent with every report is that Goodnight was on a high-speed chase,” said Johnson, “and I’m telling you that is absolutely impossible. I had a clear line of vision both ways and there was no speeding vehicle going either way. The left lane was clear and there was no one behind me except Goodnight after he pulled out. If he was on a chase, all he had to do was pull out in the left lane and get it. So why would he take the time to follow me at 55 for almost a quarter mile?” Johnson arrived at the scene almost simultaneously with two other witnesses, Donald Ross and Michael Perry, who were traveling northbound behind Allmond and witnessed the crash from that vantage point.
“We were right behind the car as it turned at the light,” Ross said. “We saw every bit of it.” But while he witnessed the impact, Ross could not recall the moments leading up to it and could not say whether the patrol vehicle was already in hot pursuit or pulled out from behind Johnson mere moments before.
His recollections of the moments after the crash did confirm Johnson’s statements. “I cut the seatbelt loose from around the little girl,” Ross said.
“I was running around triaging everyone before the EMTs got there,” said Johnson, “and I remember asking one of the other two guys who stopped if they had a knife to cut that seatbelt.”
Perry could not be reached for comment.
Ross and Johnson both said they filled out an eyewitness report and, presumably, so did Perry.
“I was interviewed by three state troopers at the scene prior to me starting my witness statement,” said Johnson. “They were primarily interested in whether he had his blue lights on and whether he had the green or red light [at the intersection].”
‘I can’t carry thIs around anymore. I feel It’s my duty to t wo famIlIes who are stIll grIevIng and are not gettIng any answers. they’re wIllIng to put out erroneous InformatIon to protect one of theIr own.’ — terry Johnson
Both were also interviewed by a member of the accident reconstruction team. Ross did not recall who conducted the interview with him, but Johnson did.
“Sgt. [Mark] Davidson is the guy who interviewed me,” Johnson said. “He and his partner came to my house the following day, Monday, and interviewed me on tape for about an hour and a half. He asked me specifically did I ever get the sense that Officer Goodnight had any urgency to do anything, and I said no. He pulled in behind me and we trundled down the road for a quarter mile at 55, and then he kicked his car in the butt and took off and killed two people. That’s the bottom line.
“That interview is out there. I told them everything I’m telling you. Both my written statement and a taped interview will totally refute the information their office is putting out there.”
While Sgt. Davidson is not allowed by policy to comment on an ongoing investigation, the patrol’s public information officer, Sgt. Jeff Gordon, did shed some light on the situation.
“I spoke with Sgt. Davidson and he said he interviewed three people traveling in the southbound lane, one of them being Trooper Goodnight, and one in the northbound,” he said on Monday. “All were recorded and will be summarized as part of the final report. He said that Mr. Johnson’s version of events as you described them to me were essentially what he told him. The discrepancy comes in where he fell in behind him and gunned it.
“Obviously, I can’t comment on the report, but what I can tell you is that some times
what people perceive as correct may be interpreted differently by someone else. I don’t know if this is the case as far as Mr, Johnson’s recollection. I don’t think it’s fiction, he just may have a different perception in his eye as to what transpired leading up to the accident.”
The following day, Gordon further explained the patrol’s position on exactly what constitutes a chase.
“Let’s clarify one thing,” he said, “this was not a chase. It was never a chase, and this was misreported by the media from the get-go. He was doing a traffic enforcement response. It was not a chase; he observed a violator speeding, turned around on him and was attempting to catch up. He was never engaged in a chase, never got close enough to where he had to activate his emergency equipment.
“A traffic enforcement response is basically when we observe someone breaking the motor vehicle law then we attempt to stop that individual,” Gordon continued. “Now when it becomes a pursuit is when that individual chooses not to stop and flees, and at that point the trooper activates his emergency equipment.
There is a policy on that but this was never a chase, he never called it in as a chase, he never got close enough to the vehicle so that he could initiate his equipment.”
A source within the Highway Patrol who spoke only on condition of anonymity said that the final report would be completed “soon,” but would not elaborate on exactly how soon.
But why did Johnson wait six weeks before going public with his story?
“I actually tried to contact a TV reporter immediately afterward, but she never called me back,” he said. “I waited awhile because there are two investigations going on [one by the accident reconstruction team that shut down Business 85 for four hours on May 26, and another by the NC Attorney General’s office]. I’ve cooperated every way possible but it appears they don’t want my help.”
There appears to be an explanation as to why he has not been contacted by the
Attorney General’s office. Spokeswoman Noelle Talley said the agency’s involvement is limited to liability issues.
“Our office represents state government agencies whenever they get sued,” she said, “and in anticipation of a lawsuit being filed against the Highway Patrol related to this accident, our office along with the state’s insurance carrier, which is Traveler’s Insurance, hired an outside engineering firm to review the accident. So that’s what’s been going on; there’s not any kind of investigation by investigators within our office. I think the Highway Patrol was also doing their own thing (during the accident reconstruction), but ours was an engineering firm.”
Still, Johnson said he felt the time was right to come forward.
“I can’t carry this around anymore,” he said. “I feel like it’s my duty to two families who are still grieving and are not getting any answers. They’re willing to put out erroneous information to protect one of their own, which is what it looks like to me. They’ve had this long to straighten it out and haven’t done it, and it’s not right. It stinks.”
Just like the smell of death.