published Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Varnell, Ga., officer on leave during probe of deadly crash

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A Varnell, Ga., officer who was involved in a deadly crash with a 70-year-old man earlier this week is on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted, authorities said.

Officer James Smith was headed north on Cleveland Highway early Monday morning when his patrol car collided with Leon Thurman's Dodge Neon, which was crossing the highway, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

Thurman, a longtime contract newspaper carrier for the Dalton Daily Citizen, was ejected, and his car burst into flames. Smith was treated at the hospital for a facial injury then released, officials said.

Early investigation shows Thurman should have yielded to the patrol car, said Cpl. Kris Hemphill with the state patrol's regional office in Dalton, Ga. But a collision reconstruction team will determine if there were any other contributing factors, he said.

The main factor authorities will be examining is how fast the officer was driving, Hemphill said. When the crash occurred, Smith didn't have his blue lights on.

The collision team will pull the patrol car's black box to determine speed at impact, Hemphill said.

The investigation will be turned over to the Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office to see if criminal charges are appropriate, he said.

Smith, a six-year employee of the Varnell Police Department, is on paid leave pending the investigation, said police Chief Lyle Grant.

Several emergency calls had come in early Monday morning in the area where the crash occurred, but the chief said he wasn't sure if Smith was responding to a call at the time.

Smith couldn't be reached for comment.

Thurman, a Chattanooga native who lived in Cohutta, Ga., worked for more than 20 years at the Dalton newspaper and wss a former dairy farmer, his obituary noted.

Services will be held for Thurman on Thursday at the Pleasant Grove Chapel in Dalton.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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