Reagan Hartley was just 22 years old when she did many things for the last time because of an impaired driver.
Her last haircut by her best friend from high school. Her last text to her mom, a peace sign. Her last drive home from Western Carolina University, where she was about to earn a degree in education and become an elementary school teacher.
“I didn’t get to hold her or hug her for her last breath,” her mother, Christy Dawson, said at her funeral.
But firsts that never came hurt more.
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“I don’t have a first wedding, a first ‘I got a job,’ a first ‘I’m having a child,’” Dawson said. “But it’s OK, because my job as a mother was to take care of her needs. So this morning I did another first: I hugged Reagan the last time and kissed her and lay down the lid on her final bed.”
Dawson began to sob.
She said her relationship with Hartley was inexplicable. Even when Hartley was a child, Dawson said, she never had to tell her daughter right from wrong.
“Reagan had a compassion and maturity about her that was wise beyond her years,” she said. “She bounced out of bed in the morning. She lived a life that most people as an adult never achieve, morally or academically. She had a zest for loving people. She saw the good in people.”
When Hartley graduated from West Johnston High School and went away to college, she texted and called her mom so much that Dawson knew the names of her classmates and intimate details about her cats’ habits.
“That child was like a walking angel,” Dawson said. “Reagan had something that most people don’t have, and we can’t explain it.”
And it’s their friendship that gives Dawson peace in her death. And she knows her daughter is in a better place.
“I know my daughter is in heaven, because I know she was saved,” Dawson said. “I thank God he let me borrow her for 22 years, because I had a great relationship with my daughter.”
Hartley was passionate from her childhood. As a girl, she always had a book on hand and loved to dance. As a young woman, she became interested in politics. Friends and family say she was a staunch Republican; her Facebook page shows a photo of George W. Bush with his parents and a caption, “Love these guys!”
When she did her student teaching in college, her favorite word for her students was “fabulous.”
“She was always telling the children, ‘You all are fabulous,’” Dawson said. “She never told the children, ‘You’re wrong.’ It was always, ‘Are you sure?’”
Best friends forever
Allison Nelms, Hartley’s best friend from middle school and high school, has deep memories of Hartley. The girls made a pact to be best friends forever; signed and dated it. Their birthdays were just one day apart. Hartley was obsessed with Clay Aiken and Nelms with Carrie Underwood.
“She got me a picture signed by Carrie Underwood back in middle school, and that’s always the favorite gift that I’ve ever gotten,” Nelms said. “I can’t throw it away.”
Another time, the two girls stood outside in the pouring rain just to be the first in line to an Aiken concert.
Mostly, Nelms remembers Hartley’s joy and lack of drama.
“Growing up with a bunch of girls, girls are drama,” she said. “But being around Reagan made you humble. It made you realize that everything doesn’t have to be serious. It can be fun and carefree.”
Hartley would often tell her “worrier” friend, “Life is too short to waste time worrying,” Nelms said.
As Nelms cut Hartley’s hair over spring break, the two laughed over high school memories and imagined their 10-year reunion. Hartley had wanted for months to have her hair cut shoulder-length, her mom said.
That week, she was staying with her family in the Willow Spring community.
As mother and daughter ate pizza together one night, on a whim, Dawson snapped a photo.
“Reagan was tiny. She was a picky eater, and she was eating a piece of pizza,” Dawson said. It’s the last photo she has of her daughter alive.
The fatal accident
On April 3, a Thursday, Hartley had made the five-hour drive back to Cullowhee to babysit a little girl. But the girl’s mom forgot about the appointment, so Hartley decided to come home that night.
“Mom, the lady never showed up,” she said in a phone call to Dawson, who told her, “Reagan, just wait till tomorrow morning to come home.”
“Are you kidding?” Hartley said. “I’m not unpacking this car and then repacking it.”
Before she left, Hartley called her mom, who told her daughter to call when she got close to home.
About that time, police from three towns were about to engage in a car chase that would end Hartley’s life. Around 10 p.m., Ronnie Fichera of South Boston, Va., began behaving strangely in front of Jessica Leviner, an assistant manager at the Subway on Fayetteville Street in Asheboro, according to police.
“Ms. Leviner stated that he was acting weird and his eyes were unusual,” according to a report by Asheboro police officer Jimmy Wells. Fichera began vandalizing a sign, police said, and when Leviner called 911, Fichera screamed at Leviner but left the building. He was sitting in his green Ford Expedition when police arrived.
“The driver had extremely red, glassy eyes and slow, slurred speech,” Wells wrote in his report. “I also noticed what I believed to be an open container of alcohol in the center console of the vehicle.”
When Wells tried to question him, Fichera sped off, the officer said, and nearly ran him down. Wells followed in pursuit.
Fichera drove north down the middle of Fayettville Street, and Wells and officer Logan Connor followed. When the chase reached Randleman, police there took over. When it reached Guilford County, Guilford deputies took charge.
The deputies stopped the chase when Fichera drove onto Intersate 40 East going the wrong way. His Expedition struck Hartley’s silver Volvo head-on.
When her normally punctual daughter didn’t call, Dawson texted her, “How close are you to home?” No reply came. Dawson texted again, saying she was worried. No reply.
Dawson called twice. No reply. She woke her husband, Ken Dawson, and told him something was wrong. By 12:15 a.m., they were calling authorities and searching for accident reports online.
“(Ken) came in the bedroom and said, ‘You need to get up and get dressed,’” Dawson recalled. “There had been an accident in Greensboro, and a Volvo had been involved. We knew. We knew that minute.”
Dawson called law enforcement to find out more, but an officer just said, “If it’s your daughter, someone will be there to notify you.”
Helpless, the couple waited. Then came a knock at their door. A officer said, “Ma’am, I have to tell you something.”
Though she hadn’t heard, Hartley’s friend Nelms knew something wasn’t right. She woke in the middle of the night and thought, “Something’s wrong.”
Then around 5:30 a.m., she heard the news from Hartley’s mom.
“I don’t remember anything but shock,” Nelms said. “I was just sobbing.”
‘I wish I knew why’
Moving on seems insurmountable.
Hartley’s 10-year-old stepbrother, Jake, has Asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism. When people tell him Reagan is gone, he says, “Reagan is in heaven and I’ll see her when I die.”
But at the funeral, he turned to his mom with tears in his eyes and said, “Mom, I miss Reagan.”
Dawson said she doesn’t blame God. “I don’t think God took her,” she said. “If I say that, then it sounds like I’m resentful toward God and I blame God, and I don’t.”
But she doesn’t know why Reagan died. “I don’t know,” she said. “I wish I knew. I wish I knew why. Ultimately, Reagan was his child.”
Dawson has kept up her role as mother. She spoke at the funeral, cleaned Hartley’s college apartment and cherishes her memory.
It just doesn’t seem fair. “I can tell you that child’s bones were broken from her head to her toes, and he (the driver) is still alive,” Dawson said. “And I pray that God would just come into his life.”
Fichera suffered serious injuries in the crash.
“I want him to live,” Dawson said. “I want him to live so I can look him in the eye and tell him what he took from me. God didn’t take Reagan. That man did.”
Nelms said it is hard, but it gets easier each day to be without her friend, and she thinks of what Hartley would want. “Reagan would want us to continue on,” Nelms said. “She wouldn’t want us to be sad all day.”