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Crimes of the Cape Fear: Children killed in box truck crash

Family forgives remorseful driver, believed to have been high at time of the crash
Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 10:12 AM EST
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - In the words of the District Attorney, it was a story that “ripped out the heart of our community.” On May 23, 2015, the Eddings family - visiting from Charlotte - was heading home after attending a family wedding in Surf City. Their weekend celebration took a tragic turn when a box truck plowed into them while they were stopped at a light along Highway 17.

Two-year-old Dobbs Eddings died instantly in his car seat when the box truck flipped onto the roof of his vehicle, crushing him. His mother, Hadley, who was eight months pregnant, was thrown into her steering wheel. Paramedics rushed her to the hospital, and doctors delivered her baby via caesarian section. Reed Eddings lived for two days before he also succumbed to his injures and died.

The young family of four suddenly became a family of two.

More than an accident

The man driving the box truck had been transporting seafood to customers in Beaufort and Sneads Ferry that morning, and was returning to Wilmington when he failed to slow down for the cars ahead of him stopped at the light. Investigators say he was looking down eating a sandwich just before the crash. What they did not realize until hours later was that he was likely also under the influence of drugs.

*Editor’s note: At the request of the Eddings family, WECT is not naming the driver who caused the deadly crash.

The officers who responded to the crash arrested the box truck driver for misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. None of the people who had interacted with him that day noticed any signs of impairment.

“It was only a few hours later when [the driver] was at the Pender County Detention Facility and started complaining of pains in his stomach that he admitted to one of the detention officers that he was coming off of a high, withdrawal from heroin,” explained District Attorney Ben David.

By that point, it was too late. Deputies took the driver to the hospital for a blood draw, but more than six hours had passed since the crash. Toxicology experts say heroin can leave the blood stream within four hours. The lab found trace amounts of THC and fentanyl in the driver’s blood stream, but back in 2015, fentanyl was not yet considered to be an impairing substance under North Carolina law.

A decision to forgive

Even after learning the driver who crashed into them was likely impaired, Hadley Eddings and her husband, Gentry, showed grace. Gentry was the pastor of a megachurch in Charlotte, and within days of the accident, he’d taken to the stage to ask his entire congregation to pray for the driver.

“They wanted to personally meet with him to forgive him,” David recalled of the Eddings’ response following the crash. Moreover, they were not interested in seeing him serve prison time, believing his guilt over killing two children would be a far bigger punishment than anything the courts could impose.

Six years after the crash, the Eddings still have so much compassion for the man who caused the crash that they asked WECT not to name him in this story, afraid it might be a setback in his continued recovery.

“There’s no way that this happened and he didn’t feel bad, we know that,” Hadley Eddings told WECT from her Charlotte home. “This wasn’t on purpose. We just had compassion and empathy for him. Obviously, we are grieving this incredible loss, but on the other side of things you feel for him in a lot of ways. Living with the guilt that you would probably carry from something like that cannot be easy. I don’t want anybody to hurt for the rest of their life because of a mistake that they made.”

“I am by no means a perfect person and I have my story and mistakes and I’ve hurt people in my life, and I know that I need forgiveness,” Gentry Eddings said of what gave him the strength to forgive in the wake of such unthinkable tragedy. “Being in touch with that and I know God calls me to pass that out as I’ve been given forgiveness.”

A responsibility to hold the driver accountable

While David was moved by the Eddings’ willingness to forgive, he also felt a responsibility to the community at large to punish the driver to the maximum extent allowed by law. He said it was a matter of public safety. However, because prosecutors could not prove impairment at the time of the crash, the crime was a misdemeanor and not a felony. That meant the maximum punishment was a few years in prison, rather than a decade.

For his part, the driver was utterly remorseful and willing to accept guilt for what he had done. He threw himself on the mercy of the court at his very first court appearance. David said it was the first time he had ever seen that happen in all his years as a prosecutor. As the case proceeded to sentencing, the driver never wavered in accepting responsibility.

“I’m sorry. There’s not enough words to explain to you guys how sorry I am,” the driver told the Eddings family in court. “If there was anything I could do to trade places, it wouldn’t take me a second to think about it.... [M]y irresponsibility ruined you-all’s lives. And you seem to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever seen.”

Hadley and Gentry Eddings accepted his apology.

“While losing my children has been the most devastating thing of my entire life, I know, without a doubt, that they are in heaven and they are whole and that they are perfect,” Hadley told the driver in open court. “I know that you did not intend for this to happen. I forgive you. I want you to be rehabilitated. I want you to have a good life.”

“I have no grudge or ill will for you. I forgive you completely, because I’ve been forgiven much as well,” Gentry said to him. “God, Jesus Christ, loves you. He’s a merciful and gracious God. It would bring us joy to hear that you are doing well in the future. We want to know [you are] free from addiction and doing well with [your] life. Dobbs and Reed would want you to one day experience a life of peace and joy. I just have an image of them wanting to give you a hug. So we will be praying for you. And we love you. God bless you.”

Remembering Dobbs and Reed

The deadly crash, and the merciful response of the Eddings in the wake of their personal tragedy, moved many people to action. A GoFundMe page Gentry’s sister started after the accident raised $200,000. After paying their medical bills, the Eddings donated the rest to establish an orphanage in Haiti, named in their sons’ honor.

In 2017, Hadley and Gentry got pregnant again — with identical twin boys. Isaiah Dobbs and Amos Reed were born in July of that year, and each was given a middle name of a brother who had passed away.

“They know who Dobbs and Reed are, they know that they live in heaven and they have two brothers and they talk about them frequently,” Hadley said of her now four-year-old twins.

“We have their pictures right here in our kitchen and so we were walking past those pictures just the other day and Isaiah was asking me, ‘Dad, is that Reed? Is that you and Mommy?’ And so they ask about them. So they are definitely a part of our family and we want our boys, our twins to know their older brothers,” Gentry added.

A lasting impact

This tragedy helped bring about a new law in North Carolina. The accident happened when Pat McCrory was governor. As the former mayor of Charlotte, McCrory was well aware of the Eddings’ tragedy, and worked with the state legislature to establish a new law making fentanyl an impairing substance in any amount.

In David’s prosecutorial district of New Hanover and Pender County, he established a new policy known as the “Eddings Hours.” That policy requires a blood draw of anyone involved in a fatal crash within the first two hours.

“That’s because you never know,” David said of the need for the policy, and the judgement call not to take a blood sample from the driver immediately after the crash. “Officers took this one really hard. They felt like they needed to be forgiven because they thought that they had missed some clues.”

David said testing is increasingly important because about a third of Driving While Impaired cases in this area involve substances other than alcohol. He said that unlike drunk drivers, who tend to be on the road at night, drivers under the influence of drugs are more likely to be under the influence at any hour of the day. That presents an increased risk to young children who are on the road during those hours.

The Eddings’ remarkable story also inspired a documentary on Inspiration TV: ‘Be Still and Know, the Eddings Family Story.’ The Eddings say they continue to be reminded how their outpouring of grace has touched the lives of others.

“God uses our story and he is working in peoples’ hearts and people are getting over bitterness and finding the ability to forgive others as well, and that’s been really cool to hear those stories,” Gentry Eddings told WECT. “The past few weeks I’ve realized how good God is that I could live through the story of our car accident, and the loss of our precious sons, and be at a place today that I still can wake up and have joy and peace and hope in the way that I’m experiencing that today. Six years later, I don’t have words for how to describe how impossible that should be, but it is true. I love my life and God has been so good to bring me to this place of redemption after something so hard.”

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