Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Crash report leaves questions about troopers’ roles in I-74 death

Was a state trooper accelerating at 85 to 90 miles an hour, speeding without her blue lights on, when she struck and killed a man as he walked across an interstate highway in Surry County? Or was she slowing down, going 60 mph?

And what about a second trooper driving just ahead of her, who swerved to avoid the man on foot – and then kept driving?

Two eyewitnesses, who filed written reports at the crash scene, say that Trooper Darlene H. Holt zoomed past them in the left lane just before her SUV struck Romie Clark Bobbitt, 78, of Lambsburg, Va., near Mount Airy on Nov. 21.

“The horrible scene that is left in my mind is him in her headlights,” Michael R. Cooke, 58, of Greensboro, said in an interview. “Her brake lights never came on. The car didn’t dip or anything. It was just flat-out flying.”

The Highway Patrol says Holt was not speeding. The official crash report was released quietly on Dec. 8 over the signature of a sergeant who arrived at the crash scene late in the evening. Patrol officials acknowledge that he did not speak to the witnesses that night or later.

The horrible scene that is left in my mind is him in her headlights.

Michael R. Cooke, crash witness

Discrepancies in the two accounts, and in earlier statements by the sergeant, raise questions about how vigorously the Highway Patrol investigated a death involving a 19-year veteran trooper.

“The witnesses saw something very different from what’s in the crash report,” said Andy Fitzgerald of Winston-Salem, an attorney for the family of Bobbitt, who was a retired brick mason. “They’re describing two completely different crashes.”

The family has not filed a lawsuit and is still considering its options, Fitzgerald said.

Cooke and his son, Mike II, were driving home at dusk on eastbound Interstate 74. They saw Bobbitt standing beside his car on the shoulder ahead. He was looking across the road, toward a state trooper who had stopped another driver on the shoulder of westbound I-74.

Patrol officials and one of Bobbitt’s sons said later that the left side of Bobbitt’s car was damaged, indicating that he had been in an accident.

Bobbitt stepped into the outside lane, walking toward the trooper’s blue light, and the Cookes’ view of him was blocked by the silhouette of another car between them. The elder Cooke hit the brakes, shouting to his son that the man was about to get hit.

But the car ahead of the Cookes swerved to the right, narrowly avoiding Bobbitt, and did not stop. Highway Patrol Sgt. Mitchell W. Whitener told the Mount Airy News that night that the swerving car apparently was also a Highway Patrol vehicle.

But the Highway Patrol now says there was no second trooper.

“Everybody I’ve spoken to that’s involved with the investigation knows nothing about a second trooper involved,” said Sgt. Michael D. Baker, a patrol spokesman. “I talked to Sgt. Whitener. He did not know of a second trooper ahead of Trooper Holt.”

Then Bobbitt walked into the left lane, and into the path of Holt’s SUV. The impact killed him. His body came to rest 213 feet away, according to the crash report.

The Cookes said the trooper was accelerating as she passed them, and was not using her blue light.

Speed was not a factor in this.

Sgt. Michael D. Baker, State Highway Patrol spokesman

‘Plenty of time’

“I think he would have had plenty of time to cross the road if she had not been driving the speed that she was,” said Mike Cooke II, 33. “Had she been going 65, she would have had time to lock the brakes up. Which she never did.”

Holt stopped on the left side of the left lane, turned on her blue lights about 30 seconds later, and never got out of her SUV during the next two hours, the elder Cooke said. The Highway Patrol said she was treated for minor injuries.

The Cookes talked with troopers and wrote out their statements, estimating that Holt had been driving 85 to 90 mph.

“There were officers there, we heard them, saying she must have been driving 95 mph,” Mike Cooke II said. “One of them came up to us and said, ‘She must have been hauling the mail.’”

Troopers are required to turn on their blue lights when they drive over the speed limit, which is 65 mph on I-74. But Whitener concluded in his crash report that Holt had been driving 65 mph and slowed to 60 mph just before the crash.

“The report shows she was driving the speed limit, and that’s why she was not charged with anything,” Baker said. “The pedestrian basically darted out into the highway, and he was struck by Trooper Holt. Speed was not a factor in this.”

Holt is on administrative duty, Baker said. She could not be reached for comment.