Marshall Doran knew before he set foot in a Wake County courtroom on Monday that he would be in prison for the rest of his life.
The 23-year-old from Kure Beach had entered pleas in a New Hanover County courtroom this month acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to win convictions on murder and arson charges stemming from fatal fires in December 2014 at Carolina Beach.
The hearing in front of Judge Henry Hight on Monday in Wake County Superior Court was about a traffic incident 10 months before those fires – a hit-and-run that killed two men, a Navy petty officer based at Fort Bragg and a trucker from Winston-Salem.
As part of a plea arrangement with Wake County prosecutors, Doran had agreed to plead guilty to two felonious counts of hit-and-run after striking the men with his Volvo on a snowy February night in 2014. The men were on the edge of Interstate 40 near Garner helping a truck driver whose cab had slid on the icy road and become disabled, blocking several lanes of traffic.
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The families of Nathaniel Williams, 35, the Navy officer from Hope Mills, and Larry Kepley, the 40-year-old trucker from Winston-Salem, had come to the Wake County hearing with grief-stricken hearts and powerful messages of forgiveness.
They had wrestled with Doran’s decision to drive on I-40 on Feb. 13, 2014, after consuming wine while en route to see his girlfriend at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Doran was a student at UNC-Wilmington then, studying marine biology, with plans for Valentine’s Day. He had picked up a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine for his girlfriend and a box of wine that he consumed while on his way inland, trying to beat the snowstorm blanketing the Triangle.
When Doran got to the section of interstate where the disabled truck was blocking traffic, he moved from the left lane and swerved to the right, according to Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jason Waller. In an instant he struck the men — “good Samaritans,” as the prosecutor called them – then struck a road sign before quickly driving off.
Doran did not stop to check on the men or call emergency workers to help. Wake County deputies found him later, crouched in the woods, just east of the Gorman Street exit in Raleigh, where he had abandoned his Volvo.
Kepley and Williams died quickly.
“This is going to be my turning around season,” Jennifer Kepley, the widow of Larry Kepley, told Doran shortly before the sentencing phase of the Monday hearing. “It’s been two and a half years of sorrow, waiting and concern. Through God’s eyes of grace I am able to forgive you for what you have done. ...I hope you know my prayers are with you from here on out. My husband was a great man.”
Joseph and Debra Williams, the parents of Nathaniel, traveled from Missouri to address Doran. They spoke of their faith in the Bible and told Doran they wanted to send him one that they hoped would help him find salvation.
They spoke of a son who had worked at the White House, of a man who was ready to start a family of his own and of the grandchildren they never will have.
But their message was more than one of grief and regrets.
“I have to thank you for pleading guilty to save us from a trial, to save us from that heartache, because we’ve had enough,” Debra Williams said. “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart. I forgive you.”
“Thank you,” Doran said quietly while sitting between his attorneys, Doug Kingsbery and Roger Smith Jr.
Kingsbery told the judge that Doran, with hindsight and a couple of years to weigh his actions, regretted not stopping.
“Marshall’s decision that night to flee the scene was something that today, honestly your honor, he views as a cowardly act because he was more scared for himself than he was for the two men who had just been hit,” Kingsbery said. “These were two good men who were there because they had been trying to help someone else. They deserved for him to stop. The fact that he didn’t have the courage to do that, that he should have done that night ... he is sorry.”
Hight sentenced Doran to four to six years in prison for the two counts of felony hit-and-run that were part of the negotiated plea agreement with Wake prosecutors. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop DWI, felony death by vehicle and possession of methamphetamine charges.
Hight told Doran he would accept the agreement because he already was to be imprisoned for life.
“Because of what happened two innocent heroes have been killed,” Hight said before praising the families for being so forgiving. “That was personally uplifting for me. This plea does provide relief and some closure for their families.”
The Wake County closure comes the same month that Doran entered pleas in New Hanover County Superior Court.
Kingsbery, who represented Doran in New Hanover, too, said Monday that he thought what happened on the snowy interstate on Feb. 13, 2014, sent Doran into a downward spiral of depression and post-traumatic stress that resulted in the arson that sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
New Hanover fires
On Aug. 4, Doran went before Judge W. Allen Cobb Jr. to enter Alford pleas to two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree arson in exchange for dismissal of other charges related to the setting of three fires in Carolina Beach on Dec. 6, 2014.
In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.
According to reports in the Wilmington Star News, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David accepted the plea as part of an agreement in which Doran and prosecutors did not have to go through a death penalty trial.
Doran had faced 38 charges, including two counts of first-degree murder and 11 counts of attempted first-degree murder, after a bizarre winter night for which prosecutors and the defense team struggled to find a motive.
Doran and a group of friends had watched a Christmas parade on Dec. 5, 2014, then set out for the Fat Pelican Bar at Carolina Beach. Because of Doran’s behavior, the group was asked to leave the Fat Pelican about 9:45 p.m., according to the Star News report, so they moved to The Dive, another bar on Carolina Beach.
Shortly before closing time, a bar guest noticed that her jacket was missing. About 15 minutes later, another woman reported that her purse was missing. Police obtained security footage later that showed Doran riding his bicycle with the purse and the jacket.
The first fire at 409 Carolina Beach Ave. S. started about 2:30 a.m., seemingly from the driver side of a Toyota Rav 4 and, according to investigators, started with a lighter that police later found on Doran. Darlene Maslar, 43, and Mary Cochran, 72, died when flames consumed their 12-unit condominium complex at 409 Carolina Beach Ave. S.
At 3:45 a.m., Doran set fire to a Kia Sedona at 811 Carolina Beach Ave. S., and the fire spread to a wooden structure. To escape the blaze, Hugh Ruger had to jump from the second story. His wife then dropped their 2-year-old son to him before jumping to safety herself.
Doran also set a minivan on fire at 1123 South Lake Park Blvd. before being arrested. A short time later, an eyewitness identified Doran as the man he saw around the Sedona. Police also found a toddler’s hat and some boardwalk tokens that had been taken from the Sedona on Doran.
The New Hanover district attorney said Doran was heard talking on the phone that night after his arrest, saying he did not know what had happened. “This was simply, what we can tell, a young man that was grossly impaired, that did something that seemed to be inexplicable even from our standpoint, and we had overwhelming evidence of guilt that he was the only one involved,” David told the judge, according to news reports.
Blood tests taken after his arrest showed his blood alcohol content at 0.16, twice the legal limit for misdemeanor DWIs. But even before Doran started drinking that night, the prosecutor said, his friends reported his behavior as “erratic” and “bug-eyed.”
In an effort to explain the behavior, Kingsbery noted that Doran had suffered five concussions. Kingsbery also mentioned a time when Doran was riding a racing bicycle, veered off the road and crashed headfirst into a parked car. Doran apparently had no recollection of the incident, according to his attorney.
Doran’s criminal record before February 2014 included a charge of speeding, which resulted in a verdict of improper equipment; a 2009 charge of reckless driving that resulted in a verdict of improper equipment; and a 2008 larceny charge and misdemeanor paraphernalia and marijuana charges from three dates in 2009 that were all dismissed.
Now he will be in prison for the rest of his life with no possibility for parole.