The trial began just as the tragedy started, with a call to 911.
“Oh my God! There are kids everywhere. I killed them. They are all dead, all dead, all dead. I killed them.”
Tuesday morning, in the Wise County Courthouse, jurors listened to the recorded 911 call from Richard G. Rand, 30, of Burleson, after his pickup collided head-on with a silver Mustang driven by Danny Nalley, 19, of Fort Worth. The crash occurred about 3 a.m. July 23, 2011, on a rural, winding stretch of Farm Road 730, a few miles north of Decatur. The wreck claimed the lives of Nalley’s four passengers, including Kevin Brickey, 19, of Blue Mound; Vincent “Vinny” Williams, 19, of Wakefield, Mass.; Vincent Lagrassa, 19, of Fort Worth; and John D. Rangel, 16, of Highlands.
Nalley stood trial this week for four counts of criminally negligent homicide. Investigators found he was speeding and passing in a no-passing zone when the wreck occurred. He pleaded guilty to the charges and looked to a Wise County jury to assess the punishment. After a day of testimony and a lengthy, suspenseful, two days of deliberation by the jury, Nalley received the maximum sentence of two years in a state jail.
It closed a painful chapter in a tragedy that has impacted six families.
Rand was on the witness stand as the state played the 911 recording. Wails and crying reverberated in the background. The scene on that dark stretch of road was horror and shock. Rand couldn’t stop crying as he listened to it.
And Nalley, crippled by the accident, hands gripping a wooden cane, also sobbed as he listened to the 911 call that sent rescue workers flying, only to find four teenagers dead. Nalley himself was unconscious and hospitalized for two months after the wreck.
Family members of the victims cringed during the recording.
Rand also suffered mental and physical damages from the wreck.
“I have a bulging disk, still suffer nerve damage, and I have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rand said. “I didn’t drive for three months after this. It’s something I still think about every day. I won’t leave my home now without kissing my kids every time.”
Rand, who works in the oilfield, was on his way to work at 3 a.m., headed north on FM 730. Nalley and two more carloads of friends were coming home, southbound on FM 730 from an impromptu party in the LBJ National Grasslands. Rand was driving up and around a hill when he saw two pairs of headlights racing toward him in the dark.
“I came up the hill and saw one set of headlights,” Rand said. “Then I saw a second set of headlights. They were side by side. I immediately veered.”
But there was no time. Rand tried to swerve off the road to avoid the impact, but so did Nalley. They collided. The front passenger side of Nalley’s Mustang crumpled beneath the pickup.
The drivers of the other two carloads returning from the Grasslands both testified as well.
Zachary Hahn, 21, said he knew Nalley was going to get into a wreck that night.
While driving from a spot in the Grasslands called “the rock” back to FM 730, Hahn said Nalley was already “driving recklessly, flashing his headlights behind me, acting stupid.”
Eventually all three cars were headed south on FM 730. Matthew Murray, 22, was in the lead, Hahn behind him and Nalley in the rear.
“I’m going 65 and (Nalley) blows right past me,” Hahn testified. “It’s a no-passing lane. I tell my girlfriend next to me that he’s going to get in a wreck.
“Then he attempts to pass Matt, and the accident happens … People were screaming, yelling, crying, I didn’t know what to do … I can’t sleep most nights. I can’t get over it.”
He’d been friends with all of the victims for years. Murray was also close to the victims. They played football and skateboarded together. They grew up together.
“Some people were drinking that night,” Murray said. “I’d had two beers. I was driving slow because it was really dark out there. Nothing but trees, curvy, a dangerous road.”
When Nalley was tested for blood alcohol content at about 7 a.m. at the hospital he had a BAC of 0.03. The legal limit for intoxication is 0.08.
Murray testified that he saw Nalley “fly around Zach” in his rear view mirror.
“I thought he needed to calm down,” Murray said. “He veered into the other lane and into oncoming traffic. The front of his car was right by mine. It was so close I could touch it.
“I glanced over and saw their faces. They looked like they were gasping. Like they knew what was about to happen. I saw my friends’ faces, and then I heard the wreck.”
He said now he just tries “to block it out.”
DPS Trooper William Cooper’s testimony differed slightly from the two witnesses who testified. They both said the wreck happened just off the edge of the roadway, when both Rand and Nalley tried to turn off the road at the last second. But Cooper said according to tracks he measured, Nalley was off the road for about 100 yards before impact.
Several of the victims’ parents offered painful testimony during the trial. Val Williams, the father of “Vinny” Williams, approached the stand holding onto a framed photo of his son. They were living in Massachusetts at the time. Vinny was back in Texas visiting his old friends from Saginaw High School.
“He was the light of my life – my first-born son,” Willliams said. “I miss him every day.”
He said just seven weeks after Vinny’s death, his wife died after losing a battle with a rare disease causing a chemical imbalance.
“She had been in great health for years,” Williams said. “I attribute her death directly to the death of Vinny.”
Lee Marie Lagrassa, mother of Vincent Lagrassa, approached the witness stand clutching an urn holding the ashes of her dead son.
“I have an emptiness inside,” she told the jury. “There is nothing to stop the pain. There is a hole in my heart for the rest of my life. In time it might slow down, but it’s never going to go away.”
The defense called Kenneth Nalley, the older brother of the defendant. He described the rough life his little brother had endured – a life clouded by death.
“I have six brothers and one sister,” he said. “One brother passed away. A sister is in a vegetative state. Our natural mother was addicted to drugs.”
Nalley’s father died in prison when Danny was only 3. His mom died later due to her habit. All the children were adopted by an aunt, Lori Walter, who did her best to raise them. Her husband, Danny’s uncle, also died when he was still young, leaving his wife alone to raise all the children.
Kenneth described how the fatal wreck changed his little brother.
“He’s not the same person anymore,” he said. “He has a lot of remorse for what happened. All the people who died were his friends. John Rangel was his cousin and like his brother.”
The courtroom was very crowded during the the first day of the trial. In addition to all the family of the victims, two-and-a-half rows behind the defendant’s table were filled with family and friends. Due to high emotions in the case, the Sheriff’s Office provided extra security throughout the trial. At one point in the first day, Danny’s adopted mother was overcome with anxiety and passed out. Medics and firefighters were called, but she soon recovered.
Danny finally took the stand. Gripping his wooden cane, he shuffled to the witness stand. He still may have to get a foot amputated as a result of the wreck.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about this,” he told the jury. “I’ve thought about killing myself. But that would be selfish to throw something away they all wish they could have. I need to succeed for them. I wake up in the middle of night with bloody images. I have them in the middle of the day. I don’t know if they’re real or not.”
Nalley said he does not remember the wreck at all. He said he remembered riding down a gravel road leaving the Grasslands.
“Next thing I know I woke up with a breathing tube in my mouth,” he said.
During his testmony, defense attorney Paul Belew showed Nalley a graphic, gory photograph from the wreck. Nalley broke down with sobs and a wave of emotion washed over the courtroom. The bench rows of his friends also started crying.
“I just want them to forgive me,” Nalley said through tears. “I would never want to hurt any of them.”
IN THE JURY’S HANDS
After Nalley’s testimony Tuesday afternoon, Judge John Fostel sent everyone home for the day. Trial resumed Wednesday morning with closing argunments.
“We heard a lot of emotional testimony from everybody yesterday,” said Assistant District Attorney Lindy Borchardt. “But never forget the reason were are here – a decision by Danny Nalley resulted in the death of four teenage boys. That is the reason we are here today.
“This is your courthouse, your community, your county. Your decision will not only send a message to Danny, but to all young people that they will be held accountable for their actions.”
The defense asked the jury to give probation in lieu of jail time.
“Danny is going to be emotionally and physically scarred the rest of his life,” Belew said. “We all need to start the healing process. The victims’ families need healing. Sending Danny to prison is not going to start the healing.
“At some point we need to move on. I don’t mean forget, I mean forgive. I don’t see how prison will benefit Nalley or the victims.”
“Look at Danny,” District Attorney Greg Lowery countered in his closing argument. “I’m sure you all feel sorry for him. I do, too. He wishes he could take it back. But there are four young men who were about to start the rest of their lives. They can’t because of a bad decision by Danny Nalley.
“Is sending Danny to see a probation officer once a month just punishment for killing four boys? That’s not justice. That’s a slap on the wrist is what it is. I’m asking you to send him to state jail for two years. That’s justice. That can start some healing for the families of the victims.
“I’m a deterrance guy. No matter what we do, it can’t bring those four boys back. I want to send a message: ‘Do not do stupid stuff. We don’t want this to happen again.’”
The jury wrestled with these arguments and their charge for the rest of the day, until the judge finally sent them home after 6 p.m.
On a bright, clear, unseasonably warm Thursday morning, the jury resumed deliberation. Family members passed the time sitting on the steps of the courthouse. The length of debate by the jurors making a difficult situation even harder. Finally, at 5 p.m., the jury had a decision.
The suspense and tension were palpable in the courtroom as the jury filed back to their seats. The room was quiet as the jury foreman handed a note to the judge. Nalley received two years for each charge, all to be served concurrently.
Some of Nalley’s friends and family members began to cry. As the jurors filed out, family members of the victims thanked the jury member, said “God bless you.”
Jason Sneed, the jury’s foreman, said the jury wasn’t divided, but just wanted to make sure they took everything and everybody into account. He said it was a very difficult decision for them to make.
“My faith in the system and the courts has become stronger from this experience,” Sneed said.
After the trial, family members of the victims were allowed to give victim impact statements directly to Nalley.
Walter Bearyd, the older brother of Kevin Brickey, told Nalley he should feel fortunate despite the sentence.
“I really think you need to consider two years a blessing,” Bearyd said. “It could have been a lot worse for killing four people. It gives my family a little bit of hope knowing you are getting punished … But my family will never be whole again.”
Lagrassa also spoke on behalf of her son. She said she hopes God gives her the strength to forgive Nalley someday, but she’s devastated.
“A mother’s love is a true bond that starts when you carry a son for nine months,” she said. “Even moreso because I was a single mom.
“All you had to do was drive responsibly and stay inside the double lines. You may say you don’t remember what happened. But I hope you do and it haunts you every day you live and makes your life a hell on Earth. I see you as a murderer. Maybe God can someday give me the strength to forgive you.”
Nalley was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs to the waiting sheriff’s vehicle. The red sun set behind a dark wall of clouds to the west as they drove away.