Crimes of the Cape Fear: Father, son killed while biking by driver high on bath salts
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - They were a father and son, in their prime, training for an Ironman triathlon. What started out as a beautiful Sunday morning bike ride in April of 2011 turned deadly when David and Trey Doolittle were run over by a man who’d been on an all-night bender. Ten years after Thomas Grooms was convicted of murder in their deaths, we’re taking a look back at a legal case that set precedent.
David Doolittle was 46 years old. His son, Trey, a 17-year-old high school senior. Both were accomplished athletes. A box truck driver traveling down River Road had just passed the father and son riding their bikes, and watched with horror what happened to them moments later.
“He testified that he remembered actually passing the father and son David and Trey, and that one of them looked over and smiled at him as he waved,” recalled District Attorney Ben David. “He saw this car driving erratically in his rearview mirror. So that drew his attention. So he actually witnessed the vehicle striking both of them. One of the victims bounced off the car and went 180 feet. That was Trey. David actually rolled over the hood crushing the driver’s windshield and then the hood on top, before going off the back of the car.”
The driver of the car, 63-year-old Thomas Grooms, tried to flee the scene. But the box truck driver, 25-year-old Rob Miller, had the wherewithal to use his truck to block Grooms’ path so he couldn’t leave. He then proceeded to take Grooms’ keys out of the ignition. David Doolittle had been killed in the crash. But Trey was still breathing. Miller sat with Trey, holding his hand until an ambulance could arrive.
Sgt. Bryan Phillips was the first person from the Highway Patrol to arrive on scene.
“As I entered in, I got past the firetruck and everything. I just saw a huge debris field. You know, bicycle parts, tires, seats, gloves, shoes. And at that point, I knew I had something very critical,” Phillips told WECT. After assessing the scene, he approached Grooms, who was still sitting in his vehicle.
“I remember very distinctively walking over there. And looking at a man that was very - just had this look on his face. Like he was confused. Like he wasn’t even in the world. Just kind of like a blank stare. I could instantly tell that something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t from shock from a collision. This was something that was going beyond that. And then I knew that I had to take that next step to figure out what that was. And then that’s when I asked Mr. Grooms to step out of the vehicle,” Sgt. Phillips said.
Phillips immediately noticed Grooms was unsteady on his feet, and saw his car was littered with liquor bottles and beer cans. After completing a field sobriety test, Phillips concluded Grooms was impaired, and placed him under arrest. He was so struck by Grooms bizarre expression that he asked Crime Scene Investigator Lauren White to take Grooms’ picture. The odd smirk on his face, with David and Trey’s bodies lying just feet away from him, would later weigh heavily on the jury deciding Grooms’ fate.
Despite Grooms apparent impairment, the breathalyzer Sgt. Phillips used to test his blood alcohol level registered .00. He also had a clean record, and claimed to have been distracted by his phone and blinded by the morning sun when he hit the Doolittles.
“It’s unusual for someone to be driving impaired at 10 a.m. on a Sunday. Usually if someone is doing that they’re what we call a ‘frequent flyer.’ They’ve done it before. So probably the biggest surprise to us was that he didn’t have a record,” David said. Despite the breathalyzer reading, the totality of the circumstances prompted authorities to do a blood draw on Grooms. Crime Scene Investigator White also noticed white flakes in Grooms mustache, and had the forethought to collect a sample from his beard and swab his nose for other impairing substances. That’s important, because if someone inhales a drug through their nose, it doesn’t show up in a blood draw.
“What it turned out to be was a synthetic drug that was not even illegal at the time under North Carolina law. This case helped make it illegal. It was mephedrone, which is a synthetic form of cocaine that makes you hallucinate and even deranged. That’s what the toxicologist testified to. Its street name is bath salts, which like a lot of drugs, drug dealers make it sound relaxing and nice, when in fact, it’s awful. And that turned out to be the substance that was in Thomas Grooms’ system,” David explained.
Results from the blood draw later revealed Grooms’ blood alcohol level was actually a .16, twice the legal limit, and the breathalyzer simply wasn’t working properly.
Learning the worst
Trey’s mother, Joy Blakley, was in Charlotte when she got a voicemail from a friend, saying she was so sorry to hear about Trey’s accident. That was the first Joy knew that something was wrong. She got in the car with Trey’s younger twin brothers, and started driving towards the hospital in Wilmington. She tried to call David, her ex-husband and the boys’ father. It wasn’t until later in the drive that she got another call, letting her know that her ex-husband had been killed in the same crash.
“At some point, I stopped. Parked the car in a parking lot on the of side of the road,” Blakley said. “I remember distinctly telling the twins about their dad - they already knew Trey had been hit. But I told them that their dad had been killed in the parking lot of a gas station somewhere around Lumberton, North Carolina. It was rough.”
When Blakley finally made it to the hospital around 5 o’clock that afternoon, she saw the hallway leading to Trey’s room in the Intensive Care Unit was lined with his high school friends. Two weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Trey had been accepted to East Carolina University. He was handsome, popular, and on the cusp of the prime of his life.
“I go in to see Trey, and from the internal brain injury, his face was pretty much swollen beyond recognition,” Blakley recalled. “I uncovered one of his feet because he had a plantar wart. And I had to see it, just to make sure it was even him because I didn’t want it - I didn’t want it to be true. Not that I wanted it to be anybody else’s child. But I didn’t want it to be mine.”
Trey died the following day.
Accident vs. Murder
During hundreds of hours of investigation, authorities learned that the hours leading up to the crash had been much different than the quiet night Grooms described to investigators. He said he’d been on a date with a school teacher Saturday night, and then went to sleep in a bedroom at his office in Southport. But surveillance video and his credit card records told another story.
“He had a video [camera] that was trained into that bedroom that actually recorded his movements, and whoever might be in that bed with him. We were able to pull that video and ascertain that he was nowhere near that place all night and 24 hours leading up to this incident. So he was lying to us,” David recalled. “Further investigation revealed that he had used his ATM card in the middle of the night, out at the Landfall Shopping Center. And when we pulled that video to see him getting money out, $400 In the middle of the night, we saw there was another woman with him. A woman that we initially didn’t recognize and definitely was not the school teacher, that turned out to be a street walking prostitute who he had met and went on a drug bender with.”
If someone kills another person while driving while impaired in North Carolina, they are typically charged with felony death by motor vehicle, which is punishable by about five years in prison. But Grooms’ reckless behavior made prosecutors believe he acted with malice, and was actually guilty of murder.
“[Implied malice] is where someone is deliberately bent on mischief. They’re acting in reckless disregard for others’ rights and safety. In other words, they are up to no good, and kill somebody in the course of grossly reckless conduct. Drag racing, Russian Roulette, those are textbook examples of that type of malice. Our theory was that because of his gross impairment, within 24 hours leading up to this incident, the fact that he was trying to flee the scene and did not render aid despite the fact that there was a father and son laying helpless in front of him. We believe all of those things were meeting the definition of implied malice,” David explained of their legal theory.
Still, prosecutors had a major legal hurdle to overcome: no one had ever been convicted of second-degree murder for a drunk driving death in North Carolina before, unless they’d already had a previous conviction for driving while impaired, which Grooms did not have. But authorities got a break when Grooms’ ex-girlfriend came forward to say he’d driven drunk with her in the car before. She said she was so scared she made him let her out of the car. The judge allowed that prior reckless behavior, and the warning from his ex-girlfriend, to be admissible in court. That gave prosecutors the evidence they needed to prove to the jury Grooms acted with malice.
The jury convicted Grooms of two counts of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to over 25 years in prison, which was effectively a life sentence considering Grooms’ age.
“Judge Paul Jones, the trial judge in this case.... said he’s had over 300 jury trials, and this was the saddest case he ever saw. And he said that his job was to hold this defendant responsible under the maximum extent allowed by law,” David remembered. “This case is now being used as precedent around the state and even around the country to show that someone could be convicted of murder for an impaired driving case, even if they haven’t been convicted of DWI before, if you can establish... what we call other bad acts prior.”
Likewise, Highway Patrol Sgt. Bryan Phillips was deeply impacted by the Doolittles’ death, and says he still thinks of it almost every day.
“This case has taken a toll over the years on me personally. And some of these cases do,” Phillips reflected. “It’s just being around the family, you see the heartache that it causes, you see the pain that it causes, and it does affect you. There’s no doubt. It’s - even now, I mean, I just feel it. It’s just like reliving what you saw, and having to deal with the family and express the sorrow for them. But you have it in your mindset too that it’s your ultimate responsibility as a law enforcement officer to provide every piece of evidence that you can to ensure that this guy goes to prison for what he did.”
Honoring their memory
Through his death, Trey was able to save several lives. A local mom received his heart. Other organ recipients received his kidney, pancreas, and corneas. In the years since her son’s passing, Joy Blakley has advocated for organ donation. She’s also worked to remind drivers of the importance of sharing the road with cyclists like David and Trey.
“If you’re passing a cyclist, you don’t need to be that close to them. If there’s no traffic, you can move. If there is traffic, you can wait. I mean, it’s a life or death situation,” Blakley said.
She also wrote Grooms a letter in prison, letting her know that she had forgiven him.
“It’s probably hard for a lot of people to understand, but I’ve never really hated the man. I was very upset that it could happen. And you know, it always made me wonder what could have been so bad in his life that led him to that point. I just wanted him to know that I didn’t hate him for it. And, you know, yes, it was a horrible thing. But I don’t want you to feel this horrible guilt. It just wasn’t in me to hate the person. Hate the act, yes. And the crime, but not the person. And he wrote me, he sent me a couple cards. And the one that I think I remember the most he had just written, it was like a kid getting called for talking in class, he’d written, ‘I’m so sorry’ probably 100 times. Just ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.’”
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