Heartache envelops Nicole Martin, the way a hug from her fiance or her 7-year-old son once did.
It’s been that way for nearly a year now, since a dropped cell phone set off a chain of events that has left her alone.
“I have lost more than one person should ever have to lose,” she said.
Martin steadies her voice as she recalls one of her best memories of the before days.
It is a warm April evening in Ellijay, Ga. In the front yard, a tall man and a little brown-haired boy with a big grin — both dressed in white T-shirts and blue jeans — slide their mechanics’ creepers under a car.
As they work together, intent on their task, a woman with long, dark hair drives in, her car headlights illuminating the scene.
She climbs out of the car, and that fast, the boy and man abandon their work and race to see who can reach her first.
They run, each intent on giving her the first hug, the first kiss.
The boy wins the race and jumps into her arms. Oil from his hands, his face, his shirt smear her pink scrubs.
The man reaches both of them, and they stand wrapped in a group hug, all three — Martin, her only child, Billy, and fiancé, Jason Vick — covered with streaks of oil. Laughing. Happy.
But that was before.
Before Dalton businessman Jerry Deal — reportedly distracted as he groped for his cell phone — blew through a stop sign and his Lexus plowed full speed into Martin’s Chevrolet Cavalier, leaving it a tangle of twisted blue steel. Before Martin watched her fiance, and soon after her son, take their last breaths. Before Deal pleaded guilty to two counts of homicide by vehicle and was sentenced to two years’ probation.
Georgia Law Homicide by Vehicle
Any person who, without malicious forethought, causes the death of another person when illegally passing a school bus, driving recklessly, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or running from a police officer.
Any person who causes an accident which causes the death of another person and leaves the scene of the accident.
Sentence: Three to 15 years
A habitual violator who causes the death of another person while driving on a revoked license is also charged with first degree homicide by vehicle.
Sentence: Five to 20 years
Any person who causes the death of another person unintentionally by violating a law other than those listed for first degree.
Sentence: Not more than one year and not more than $1,000 fine. License suspension of 120 days, unless there are previous suspensions or extenuating circumstances.
Martin, 28, said the sentence felt like a slap in the face.
She is outraged that Deal was not given jail time.
“Mr. Deal took my future memories away,” she said. “He took away my happy ending of getting to grow old with my soulmate; he took away the future memories of my son growing up to be a man.”
Deal did not return a phone message left at his Dalton business, Carol’s Fashions. He also owns Deal Properties Inc.
His lawyer, Bill Keith, said Deal does not want to talk about the case and always has expressed remorse.
But for all of Martin’s outrage, Deal’s sentence was in keeping with Georgia guidelines for vehicular homicide, an offense whose penalties vary widely from state to state.
In Georgia, unless there are extenuating circumstances, it is a misdemeanor with a yearlong sentence that rarely is ordered as jail time. But just across the state line in Tennessee, a vehicular homicide charge comparable to Deal’s charge is a felony that carries a sentence of three to 15 years.
Martin’s goal is to see the Georgia law changed. And to get drivers to put their cell phones down.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly 1,000 people died nationwide in 2009 as a result of distracted-driving accidents involving the use of cell phones.
Vick and Martin met in October 2008 through a mutual friend and began dating on Valentine’s Day 2009. A year later on Valentine’s Day, Vick proposed, presenting Martin with lilies and a huge teddy bear holding her ring. Billy picked the wedding date for the couple — June 21, 2011.
“He was supposed to be my fairy-tale ending — because Jason really was a good man,” Martin said. “The kind of man that every woman searches for her whole life.”
Vick, who was employed as a construction worker and enjoyed tinkering with cars, frequently helped other people repair their engines.
Billy and Vick, 33, hit it off almost immediately, Martin said, and Billy soon was calling Vick “Dad.” Vick planned to adopt Billy; the couple were going to complete the paperwork so they could change Billy’s name on their wedding day. Billy’s biological father was not involved in his life, Martin said.
Tennessee Law Vehicular Homicide
The reckless killing of another by operating a vehicle, plane, boat or other motor vehicle.
Class D felony
The death occurs in a posted construction zone where the person killed was an employee of the department of transportation or a highway construction worker.
Sentence: Two to 12 years and a fine of up to $5,000.
Class C felony
The death occurs because of conduct creating a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury. The death occurs as a result of drag racing.
Sentence: Three to 15 years and a fine up to $10,000.
Class B felony
The death occurs because of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Sentence: Eight to 30 years and a fine up to $25,000.
Class A felony
Aggravated vehicular homicide includes circumstances when the defendant has two or more prior convictions for DUI, vehicular assault or a combination of such charges; a prior conviction for vehicular homicide; or with a certain blood alcohol level with certain prior convictions.
Sentence: Fifteen to 60 years and up to a $50,000 fine. Any person convicted of vehicular homicide in Tennessee has his or her license suspended for three to 10 years.
Billy, who always had been good with numbers, wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor or president of the United States, Martin said. He loved the Georgia Bulldogs and made plans for the day when he would go to the University of Georgia.
“Both of them had smiles that could make your day brighter no matter what,” Martin said.
Every Sunday, the three of them made the short drive from Martin’s home in Ellijay in Gilmer County to visit Vick’s grandmother in neighboring Murray County, to eat lunch and talk with their family. This particular Sunday — April 25, 2010 — was a beautiful, sunny day, Martin said.
The kids kicked a soccer ball in the yard while the adults talked.
A little before 1:30 p.m., Martin, Vick, Billy and Vick’s 12-year-old nephew said their goodbyes, exchanging hugs and kisses.
They headed south on state Route 225, toward Chatsworth, Ga., on the way to Ellijay. Martin was driving the 2002 blue Cavalier, and Vick was on the passenger’s side. Billy and Vick’s nephew were in the back seat, with Billy in the center so the two could share the game they were playing.
Martin was driving 51 mph in a 55-mph speed zone, her data recorder would show later. All four were wearing seat belts.
Approaching the other side of the intersection, Deal, then 64, was headed east on Mitchell Bridge Road to go visit his sister in Chatsworth. (Deal is not related to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, his lawyer said.)
Mitchell Bridge Road intersects with 225, with a stop sign for drivers on Mitchell Bridge Road.
As Mitchell Bridge Road nears the intersection, it dips down a hill, with a 45-mph speed limit. Two signs — one at 952 feet and one at 624 feet from the intersection — and four rumble strips, evenly spaced, warn of the upcoming stop sign.
The accident report states Deal told investigators he was not familiar with the road and did not realize there was an upcoming stop sign, despite the fact that it was only five miles from his home.
Martin doesn’t believe him.
“He knew the stop sign was there, but he had no intention of stopping,” she said.
Deal told authorities he was distracted when he reached for his cell phone on his side and then dropped the phone over into the front passenger seat of his 2002 Lexus, according to the investigative report.
Investigators could not determine how fast Deal was driving, District Attorney Kermit McManus said.
The month after Jason Vick and Billy Martin were killed, the intersection at Mitchell Bridge Road and state Route 225 was changed to a four-way stop.
The Georgia Department of Transportation completed studies to make the change before the accident, according to spokeswoman Jill Goldberg.
The department also has approved plans to change the intersection eventually to a roundabout because it does not have enough traffic for a red light but too much for a four-way stop, Goldberg said. She did not know when that would be done.
Goldberg was not able to provide crash or fatality statistics for the intersection.
The Lexus smashed into the Cavalier, hitting it on the passenger’s side.
“I never even saw the man coming,” Martin wrote in a Facebook message to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “... I watched Jason take his last breath he would ever take. I told him I loved him and I was right here. I don’t know if he heard me but I like to believe he did.”
Martin was taken to Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Ga., and later to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga, while the two boys were flown directly to T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.
Vick’s parents came in to tell Martin that he had died, but she was so dazed she kept asking for him and for Billy.
The next morning she was taken to see Billy. He had multiple skull fractures, a cast on his right arm, gauze over his right eye and tubes everywhere. Doctors did a brain activity test two days after the accident. Nurses told Nicole to look for little white dots on the machine.
“I saw none,” Martin wrote. And then, he, too was gone.
“I feel so lost without them here with me on this earth,” she wrote.
Georgia State Patrol and a specialized collision reconstruction team investigated the incident and determined Deal failed to stop at the stop sign.
The reports — more than 100 pages of data — never mention Deal’s speed or whether investigators tried to determine how fast he was going. His car was not equipped with a data recorder, according to the report.
Investigative teams can use information from a scene to determine an approximate speed, but don’t always do so in an investigation, according to Lt. Paul Cosper, spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol.
“Speed might not have been an issue in the accident,” Cosper said. “In that case, they would not try to determine speed.”
In this case, “speed had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Interviews given by Deal, Martin and two eyewitnesses were taped, but the Georgia Department of Safety open records unit declined to release those because certain information could not be redacted under privacy laws.
In August 2010, a Murray County grand jury indicted Deal on two counts of homicide by vehicle in the second degree and one count of failure to obey a traffic control, according to court documents. All three charges are misdemeanors under Georgia law.
Martin said the months of waiting were agonizing, as she wondered whether Deal would even be charged.
Deal’s lawyer said he never denied the allegations. Nevertheless, Deal initially entered a not-guilty plea, and a trial date was set.
Then on Feb. 23, 10 months after the wreck, Deal entered a guilty plea in Murray County Superior Court to two counts of homicide by vehicle in the second degree.
He was sentenced to 12 months’ probation for each count, for a total of 24 months, and fined $1,000 for each count. With court costs and fines, he was ordered to pay $2,830.
Under Georgia law, Deal’s license will be suspended for 120 days, and he will need to complete a defensive driving course and pay $520 in reinstatement fees, according to a Georgia Department of Driver Services spokeswoman.
Deal also was ordered to write a letter of apology to the families of the victims.
And lastly, he was ordered to conduct a seminar at Murray County, North Murray and Gilmer high schools regarding cell phone usage while driving, distracted driving and driver safety, the court documents state.
Martin said Deal sent her a two-sentence apology after his plea: “I’m deeply sorry for the loss of your son Billy. I hope in time you will find peace in your heart to forgive me for my actions.” It did not mention Vick.
“It was so generic and no heart put into it,” Martin said.
Keith, Deal’s lawyer, said Deal pleaded guilty to spare Vick’s and Billy’s families the pain of a trial.
“It needed to be concluded for his sake and the sakes of everyone involved,” Keith said. “Hopefully, everyone can begin to have their wounds healed. He has always said he is very sorry.”
Faced with a potential wrongful death suit, Keith said Deal will pay the relatives a “very substantial sum” in an out-of-court settlement. Martin declined to talk about the civil case, but said no payment has yet been made.
McManus said Deal’s sentence was not out of the ordinary for this offense. However, the Georgia statute carries a decidedly lighter sentence than Tennessee law for a similar offense.
Georgia has two statutes for homicide by vehicle — a first-degree or a second-degree offense.
To qualify as first-degree homicide by vehicle, McManus said prosecutors must be able to prove aggravated circumstances such as reckless or drunken driving, passing a school bus illegally or fleeing from police. The charge is a felony and carries a sentence range of not less than three years or more than 15 years.
But the statute under which Deal was charged — second degree — is a misdemeanor charge and generally is used when someone doesn’t follow “the rules of the road,” McManus said.
It carries a sentence of one year, usually ordered as probation, he said.
“It is a mistake on his part that caused the death of someone else,” McManus said. “The only times I’ve seen jail time given is if the defendant has a bad driving record.”
Deal had two traffic violations in Whitfield County, according to Capt. Rick Swiney with the sheriff’s office. Deal was charged with passing in a no-passing zone in 2007 and driving 71 mph in a 55-mph zone on April 12, 2010, less than two weeks before the accident. Deal pleaded guilty to both violations and paid $280 in fines for the first ticket and $140 for the second, according to Whitfield County Probate Court records.
The investigative report states Deal had an additional speeding ticket in Alabama in 1992, again for driving 71 in a 55-mph speed zone.
Those tickets did not add up to a bad driving record, McManus said.
However, if the accident had happened on the other side of the Murray County line — in Tennessee — Deal would have faced much stiffer penalties. In Tennessee, any charge of vehicular homicide is a felony with a sentence of two to 60 years.
The person also loses his or her license for at least three years and up to 10 years, according to the law.
Dwight Aarons, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Law School, said a person does not have to break a driving law to be found guilty of vehicular homicide in Tennessee.
“If they happen to be looking down while they are driving and hit someone, it could be determined as a reckless killing,” Aarons said.
Failing to stop at a stop sign also would fall under the statute, he said.
Aarons said he is not surprised at the difference in laws in Tennessee and Georgia and would expect to see variations in other states.
Laws frequently are written toward a certain event or target specific actions, he said.
“It depends on what motivated the General Assembly when the law was written,” Aarons said.
Martin said she has called a number of Georgia lawmakers to tell them her story but hasn’t received much response or assurances that they will try to change the law. Someday, she hopes it will happen, she said, adding it is too late for her, but maybe another mother will be spared her pain.
“I’m not saying he [Deal] should be locked up for life,” she said. “Maybe about three to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Someone’s life is surely worth that much.”
Before Vick and Billy were killed, Martin said, she believed that time heals wounds. Now, almost a year later, she doesn’t.
“The more time passes, the worse my heart aches,” she said. “I miss my little boy’s smile. I miss hearing him say, ‘I love you, Mom.’ I miss the text messages Jason sent me every morning. I miss having him hold me until I forgot everything.”
There is one place where she feels closest to them.
Kneeling between the two graves in a cemetery on the outskirts of Ellijay, she says: “This is the one place I can still hear their voices.”
Their gravestone has a painted scene of the two fishing, one of their favorite things to do. “Gone fishing together forever,” it says.
Martin finds some comfort in the life Billy gave to four other people when he died. His heart went to a 4-year-old boy, his liver went to a 9-month-old girl, and his kidneys were donated to two women, ages 73 and 34. Nicole has heard all four are doing well since their organ transplants.
The 4-year-old boy is special to Nicole — in him she sees her son, still alive. She plans to start a fund for him so he can go to college the way Billy had always wanted.
“My son Billy will forever be a hero,” she wrote. “I have been asked if it [donating Billy’s organs] was the hardest decision I had ever made. No, it was not because I did NOT want another mother to have to cry herself to sleep because her child was dead.”
Nicole worked as a nursing assistant at the time of the wreck, but now is going to school full time to become a registered nurse. Eventually, she wants to become a nurse practitioner and work with the American Red Cross during national disasters.
There are bad days and good days, she said.
As she sat at a table in Wendy’s and flipped through the accident report showing pictures of the mangled Cavalier, she glanced around. Her eyes were still red-rimmed where she had wiped away tears a few minutes earlier.
A server picked up a tray at a nearby table, while a man ordered a hamburger at the front counter.
“It seems so strange — everybody else is going on with their lives,” she said. “Mine has stopped.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Writer Mariann Martin is not related to Nicole Martin.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...