published Monday, March 19th, 2012

Family wants answers about Cohutta man’s fatal collision with police cruiser

In their living room in Cohutta, Ga., Leon Thurman's family members talk about the events that took his life on March 5. From left are his widow, Virginia Thurman, his son, Michael, and daughter, Missy Mercer.
In their living room in Cohutta, Ga., Leon Thurman's family members talk about the events that took his life on March 5. From left are his widow, Virginia Thurman, his son, Michael, and daughter, Missy Mercer.
Photo by Tim Barber.

The son and daughter of a Cohutta, Ga., man killed in a fiery crash two weeks ago want to know how fast a police officer was driving when his cruiser smashed broadside into their father's Dodge Neon.

"This could have been avoided," said Michael Thurman. "[I know] in my heart this shouldn't have happened."

Thurman's 70-year-old father, Leon, a longtime newspaper carrier for the Dalton Daily Citizen, was delivering papers about 1:30 a.m. on March 5 when he crossed four lanes on Cleveland Highway trying to get to a side road.

Varnell police officer James Smith, a six-year veteran, was on the highway, driving from Dalton to Varnell, in an area where the posted speed limit is 45 mph.

Police later said his blue lights weren't on, and 911 records indicate that he wasn't responding to a call. And in his front seat was a 19-year-old male passenger, who authorities later said was participating in a citizen ride-along.

The patrol car slammed into the passenger's side of Thurman's Dodge Neon, then swerved and crashed into the car a second time. Thurman was thrown from the car, which shot forward and burst into flames in the middle of the road. The patrol car jumped a curb and went down an embankment.

Thurman died at the scene. Smith was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. The teenager, Cody Coker, was unharmed.

The initial police report indicates that Thurman failed to yield, but the report doesn't give any estimated speeds.

The Georgia State Patrol has done an extensive collision reconstruction on the crash, but officers won't say how fast Smith was driving until their investigation is complete.

But Michael Thurman and his sister, Missy Mercer, are upset with the initial report, and they worry that their father's death may not be investigated fully even though they are convinced Smith was speeding.

"When you look at the [crashed cars] photos, there's no way he wasn't speeding," Michael Thurman said.

Police photos show a charred, crumpled Neon. The front of the police cruiser was also smashed inward, the bar on the bumper crushed, the windshield broken.

Along the highway where the wreck occurred, orange lines mark the spot where the cars collided. A faded skid mark shows where the cruiser went off the road.

The marks are black where Thurman's car lurched forward. A giant black spot shows where parts of Thurman's car melted from the fire.

After the initial investigation, Georgia state troopers met with prosecutors to talk about the case.

Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston said he can't comment on whether charges will be filed against Smith.

"It all depends on what they find," Poston said.

Smith couldn't be reached for comment. He has been on paid administrative leave since the crash, which authorities say is standard in an officer-involved fatal crash. Coker, his passenger, declined to comment for this story.

Varnell Mayor Dan Peeples said officials asked police why Smith had a passenger in the car so late at night. But police supervisors explained that was normal procedure for a ride-along, Peeples said.

Documents show Coker had filled out the proper paperwork to ride with Smith on March 4 and 5.

"It's a very unfortunate situation," Peeples said. "[But] we are very much aware of every situation. Not one rock will go unturned."


Smith was on routine patrol at the time of the crash. He had responded to a call at 11:20 p.m. March 4 from Cohutta resident Ann Madron, who had reported someone was trying to steal a motor from her yard, a 911 incident report shows.

Madron told the Time Free Press she spoke briefly with the officer that night, and he told her he had to leave on another call. He signed off the call at Madron's house at 11:34 p.m., records show.

But records don't show that he went to another call.

Dispatchers tried to contact Smith two times at 1:12 a.m. March 5, but he didn't respond, according to a 911 recording. A dispatcher then called him on his cellphone to ask if he had gone off duty, and he said he was at Walmart.

Fifteen minutes later, Smith called 911 to report he had been in an accident.

"I've been in a 10-50 [code for accident]," he told dispatchers, breathing heavily. "I've got one car fully engulfed right in front of Tractor Supply."

He then hung up. Smith didn't mention having a passenger in the car with him.

Dispatchers' calls to emergency crews then erupted over the airwaves, the recordings show. But when EMS workers asked if there were any reported injuries, the dispatcher said it was unknown because Smith had hung up.


Leon Thurman was well-known in the community, his family said.

He delivered newspapers for more than 15 years and was very particular about his route, said his wife, Virginia.

He wouldn't let anyone else take his shift. So through the years he worked seven days a week, through the night, until his work was done. The only exception was Christmas Day.

In the last few years, the late nights began to wear on her husband, Virginia Thurman said. But he told her he didn't want to stop.

"He said he came alive at night," she said.

Leon Thurman often talked to his family about meeting up with police at night to talk, including Smith. He thought of all the officers as friends.

That makes his family sympathetic toward Smith.

"We have anger that our daddy's gone," Mercer said. "But I have sympathy for [Smith] and that he killed a friend."

After Leon's death, Virginia put a birdhouse painted orange and white with a "T" for Tennessee Vols on a table on their front porch. Next to the birdhouse she placed a small pot of plants.

The plants were a gift from Smith, sent to the family at the funeral home.

The birdhouse he had built and given to Leon months before.

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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